Article & Photos by Joe Contreras, Latin Life Denver Media (see photo galleries below)
I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in China in this past October. I hadn’t done the research other than some basic travel criteria. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. Like me, many people in this travel group of about 50 people we decided to just let China reveal itself to us.
Most all of us were astounded at what we encountered. I expected to see a communist society with a suppressed, controlled and somewhat impoverished people, something along the lines of Cuba only on a much larger scale. Instead I encountered a vibrant, flourishing capitalist/communist system modeled after the U.S. economic system with gleaming skyscrapers, ultra clean modern roadways and a hard working people that were healthy and happy. Obesity is virtually non existent. People were seemingly very free . Not what I was expecting at all.
Shanghai, known as the ‘Oriental Paris’, is China’s biggest and richest city with 24 million inhabitants. The city rivals New York or Paris in terms of modernity and boasts a blended culture of the East and the West. Shanghai is a tourist destination famous for historical landmarks as well as modern, ever-expanding skylines. Video by Joe Contreras
Make no mistake; China is still a one party political system that does not tolerate criticism as is evident with the current China/NBA dispute. I was surprised to learn there are more than 800 million NBA fans in China. There are surveillance cameras everywhere, many with face recognition technology You don’t want to end up on the bad behavior list. Something like jaywalking could impact your ability to get a loan and may raise your auto insurance rates as you may be viewed as a risk taker. There are lots of ears as well so the guides avoided political conversations, especially in regard to what happened in Tienamen Square in 1989 and the current situation in Hong Kong.
Watch out Cirque du Soleil, Golden Mask Dynasty theatrical production, directed by the man who also directed the opening and closing 2008 Summer Olympic ceremonies in Beijing, China and will stage the 2022 Winter ceremonies also in Beijing has produced this spectacular performance which has entertained sold out audiences 3 times a day for 10 years. The water effects are astonishing. Video by Joe Contreras
People can operate their own businesses, own homes and invest in the Chinese stock market. They all pay taxes including income taxes. Most everyone appeared to have a cell phone, selfies were the thing, people were well dressed everywhere we went, smoking is permitted most everywhere, you can buy beer, wine and hard alcohol at the local convenience store, night clubs stay open till the wee hours of the morning, late model cars have replaced bicycles and mope heads for the most part although they are still everywhere. People are not allowed to own guns. Drugs and crime rates are very low as perpetrators are heavily punished. We saw no homeless people and only one person panhandling at one of the tourist sites. Our guide said both are heavily frowned upon in Chinese society.
Finding someone who speaks English can be challenging. Chinglish didn’t work either. Many merchants use Google translate or some other AI device to understand what you are trying to say. I found it much easier to find Spanish speaking Chinese. Turns out Mexico is the favorite Latin American tourist destination for Chinese. 200,000 thousand Chinese tourists are expected to visit Mexico this year. They say they enjoy Mexico’s history, culture & society. During our time there the Mexican Minister of Tourism. Miguel Torruco Marques, was in China to secure Mexico’s market share among international Chinese tourists. “More and more younger Mexicans are studying the Chinese language in Mexico aiming to be a part of this tourism industry and to serve this growing market,” he told the Chinese press.
In the six cities we visited, Beijing, Xian (she-ann), Suzhou (su-joe), Hanghou (hang-joe) Wuxi and Shanghi I was amazed that I did not see a single pothole or trash on any roadway other than a cigarette butt here and there. In fact many of the roadways were adorned with miles and miles planter boxes full of beautifully maintained roses. We wondered who waters, prunes and takes care of all of them. I’m sure there are parts of China the tour company did not want us to see but we were not restricted as to what we chose to explore outside the travel itinerary. Some people hoped off the bus at various points to do their own things and others skipped the daily tour choosing to take alternate transportation to whatever they wanted to do.
Much of modern China has been built in just the last 20 years according the guides who proudly point to the numerous building cranes scattered everywhere in each city we visit. “The crane has become our national bird,” laughs one guide. “There are 93 million vacant condos and apartments in China yet we keep building and prices keep climbing,” he states adding “We know we are creating a housing bubble but it seems we don’t care and are going to ride that bubble for as long as it lasts.” It all is stark contrast to what existed at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 when China was in deep poverty and thousands died as a result.
“I was expecting to see an old country” said David Tenor as we ate lunch in the elegant French Quarter in Shanghi, our last stop on the tour. Tenor who is from conservative Green Bay, Wisconsin and is a proud share holding owner of the Green Bay Packers commenting on his impressions of China continued, “I guess propaganda works both ways. These people are not hurting for anything. We have been mislead into thinking the opposite of what we are seeing. I thought it would be like the movies, I was expecting to maybe see China men on dirt roads running with carts behind them.” His wife chimed in saying “I can’t believe how clean and modern and beautiful all the cities we have visited are. Even the underground knock off market had tile floors and glass encased shops. I have felt totally safe in every one of them,” she said. We were told to watch out for pick pockets as that was the most imminent threat to our security but no one had any issues.
Maria, a staunch U.S. Republican said she was surprised to see how advanced the Chinese were financially. “I was surprised to learn that unlike the deficit ridden economy we have at home China is a cash rich country that owns more than $1.2 trillion of the U.S. foreign debt. I’m not sure we should be turning our back on a market that is more than three times that of the U.S. I don’t see how we can win a trade war with these people. It seems like we need them more than they need us.”
With nearly 1.4 Billion people occupying a land mass the size of the United States of America, China is crowded to say the least. There are high rise condo and apartment buildings as far as the eye can see and the bus can travel. It never ends. Eminent domain is rampant in China’s big cities as the government and developers take over neighborhoods once occupied by long time residents. It’s a form of gentrification on steroids. The average wage is about $1800 per month based on a nine hour six day a week schedule. The average two bedroom condo runs about one million U.S. dollars.
“The one thing I did not like about China is that there are a lot of people everywhere, so there is a lot of crowding, pushing and shoving and no one says excuse me, sorry or anything,” said Juan Lopez of Chicago.
“I guess all the crowding and rudeness is part of their culture and despite that they are not very nice even each other it comes with the territory. Other than that they still appear to be a very happy people,” said Lopez.
Our guide said it is because of the sheer multitude of people living in China with cities containing millions of residents. “If we take the time to say excuse me, sorry and all that then we would spend most of our day just doing that,” he said. He also mentioned that much of the crowding goes back to the days when China was desperately poor. “We had to boil leather belts to create some kind of stew so we could have something to eat,” he said. When basic commodities would be handed out, if you did not crowd to the front of line chances were you would be squeezed out and not receive anything. “There are still a lot of people that remember those times and so they crowd almost instinctively,” he said. Speaking of age, according to the United Nations, China is ageing more rapidly than almost any country in recent history and it is becoming a big problem for them. It is the result of it’s one child policy implemented in 1980. Russia’s average population is actually older than China’s at 39. China’s median age is 37. The problem is quantity. China has about a billion more people than Russia.
Today generations of families live together to help ends meet and prosper. Just having a car takes a lot of money and patience. You must first pay to enter a lottery system and if you are a lucky winner you must then apply for a license plate which carries a cost of $1500 dollars. The process can take up to two years. There is still insurance and maintenance that must be paid for on top of that. Despite the cost there are thousands of cars on the roadways, many BMW’s and Mercedes but no pick up trucks. Yet they somehow manage to keep traffic flowing even during rush hour.
It is a status symbol just to have a car and something necessary if you are a male hoping to attract a mate. China’s former one child policy has resulted with males becoming the dominant population. By tradition girls could not carry on the family name so they were shunned and aborted in mass. With so many men and so few women the ladies now have the choice of picking from the cream of the crop.
Potential mates had better have the seven C’s if they even want to be considered for a partner. What are the seven C’s , a car, a condo, a career, cash, credit, cooking and cleaning. Yes, women rule the roost so the men must be able to cook and clean as well.
Our guide laughs saying a BMW are offered as an engagement symbol for “Be My Wife”. People are now permitted to have two children but most stick to one because of the cost and time involved in raising a second child.
Women generally retire at 50 and find themselves caring for grandchildren and adult children. While national and international travel is permitted Women cannot travel by plane after the age of 70.
All in all we learned so much, so quickly about a country we knew so little about. I could not agree more with Mark Twain and the PBS travel show host, Rick Steves, who ends each show with Twain’s quote: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
The Great Wall of China is one of the seven greatest man-made wonders of the world and is the focal point of China. A hike along the Great Wall Juyongguan Pass
The famous “Terra Cotta Warriors”: The serendipitous discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors in 1974 ranks as one of the world’s most important recent archaeological finds. Three excavation pits have been opened to the public with a fourth underway.
The fine troops, horses, and carriages in battle formation are impressive. There is still much excavation to be done as thousands of pieces continue to be unearthed. A Terra Cotta Replication Factory that re-makes terracotta soldiers offers souvenirs for sale to tourist. The area has been made into a major tourist attraction with dozens of restaurants.
The Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty. For almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government. The Forbidden City was once forbidden but now permitted. It is a huge palace complex of more than 9,000 rooms where 24 emperors of Ming and Qing Dynasties used to live in. Various doorways lead to the magnificent and well preserved buildings decorated with yellow glazed tile roof, white marble base and splendid colorful paintings. The cultural richness of china is truly reflected at this historical palace.
Tienanmen Square is the largest public square in the world occupying an area of 440,000 square meters and able to hold more than 1,000,000 people at the same time.
Tienanmen Square was first built in Ming Dynasty when Emperor Zhudi laid out the city of Beijing. It has been an imperial square enclosed by railings out the Forbidden Palace, civilians were forbidden to enter.
As more than 500 years passed, Tienanmen Square became a diamond in the crown of Beijing. On 1st October 1949, Chairman Mao proclaimed the establishment of People’s Republic of China in Tienanmen Gate.
The city of Suzhou, which dates to 514 BC, is sometimes called the “Venice of the East”. A walk down Shan Tang Street, which has always been regarded as the first name of Suzhou ancient streets. It has a long history of about 1100 years, its layout and architecture are the best to represent the characteristics of Suzhou’s old alleys, and it has connections to many ancient Chinese celebrities and anecdotes.
Wuxi – Hangzhou: A boat ride on the West Lake reveals the ethereal beauty of Hangzhou’s willow draped islands and the Su Causeway. It was built in the fifth year of Yuanyou Period in the Northern Song Dynasty (1090) and has evolved since then. At that time, Su Shi (Dongpo), a poet known as the perfect in Hangzhou Prefecture, had the West Lake dredged and built the Su Causeway by dredged silt. Hangzhou hosted The G20 summit in September 2016. A special garden was created for Michelle Obama and the other first ladies that attended the summit. Photos of Barrack Obama are on display at the various sites he visited while there.
Temple of Heaven was a place for emperors to worship the Heaven in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Being first built in 1420, it is the largest and most representative existing place among Chinese ancient sacrificial buildings. Hutongs are narrow alleyways formed by joining together courtyard residence, also are a glimpse – fast disappearing – of what the city used to look like before the skyscrapers started munching the skyline.
The Lingering Garden is a renowned classical Chinese garden and is recognized with other classical Suzhou gardens as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Shanghai, known as the ‘Oriental Paris’, is China’s biggest and richest city with 24 million inhabitants. The city rivals New York or Paris in terms of modernity and boasts a blended culture of the East and the West. Shanghai is a tourist destination famous for historical landmarks as well as modern, ever-expanding skylines
French Quarter-Shanghi: The leafy boulevards of the elegant French Concession are home to cozy live-music venues and boutique wine bars, as well as indie fashion shops and European delis. Dining options range from soba noodle shops to tapas bars and French bistros. The Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum has ceramics, wood carvings and embroidery on display.
Xian at night
Jade Museum – Beijing- Jade is pronounced as ‘Yu’, and it has a history in China for at least four thousand years.s
The Silk Spinning Factory in Suzhou – China is known for its silk
The city of Wuxi hosts the largest fresh water pearl exhibition in China
Green Tea Village Gardens
The Water Show outside the Grand New Century Hotel Radio &TV Zhejiang, Hangzhou, China
View from Shanghi Tower Observatory