This is part of the Travel: What it’s like to visit each city series I’m doing, to talk about what it’s like to see each city I’ve been through, from a foreigner’s perspective.
Beijing was the first city I had ever been to in China, in 2011.
Shanghai, was immediately after.
WHAT PEOPLE TOLD ME ABOUT CHINA BEFORE I WENT
When I stepped off the plane, I really wasn’t quite sure what I’d find, having been to many Chinatowns in Europe, Canada and the U.S., but not China, itself.
I was told it would be super cheap, louder, dirtier, more Chinese.
Photograph of signs at night in Beijing China, near Dongzhimen Lantern Alley
As it turns out, people are (generally) utterly useless in describing how it would actually be, because they don’t pay attention and understand the way others live.
People generally don’t want to bother with acting like a local such as taking the subway or the bus, immersing yourself deep into the actual heart of a city.
Seeing is one thing, observing is another.
From my experience, people just go there, check out the big sights, take taxicabs, and stay at very Western-nized hotels in “safe” areas of the city.
Worse, is if they’re on a walled-off, gun-protected resorts that are so popular in sun-filled destinations.
Or maybe they just didn’t want to scare me off with the details 😉
COUNTRIES I DON’T CONSIDER TO BE PART OF CHINA
Hong Kong, and Macau, the other two cities I will cover in this Travel: What it’s like to visit each city series, are not considered to really be part of China for me.
There is a difference between mainland China (e.g. Beijing and Shanghai), and “Not China” (Hong Kong, and Macau).
Taiwan, is also another country I don’t recognize as being under mainland China, either.
..oh and you can also forget about talking about how since Mongola is filled with ethnic Chinese, and is therefore should be rightfully under “China”.
With that logic, half of Vancouver should also become part of China.
As a side note, even traveling to Hong Kong and Macau, everyone had different passports and even their currencies are different.
…and can we really call that a unified country? Not in my books.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEIJING AND SHANGHAI
They’re both very modern cities compared to the rest of China, or so I’m told.
(I haven’t been to the countryside, but I am constantly reminded that Beijing is the capital and headquarters of the People’s Republic of China, with 19 million folk crammed into there.)
Photograph of a monk at a holy temple in Beijing
Beijing is for the politically-minded, as it is the seat of power, and it’s like the Washington D.C. of the U.S., or Ottawa in Canada.
Photograph of sculpture in the Shanghai Airport, which speaks to their “modern” style
Shanghai, is for those who are richer, and want to do business. It’s like the New York City of China, or the Toronto in Canada.
Beijing, offers glimpses of the way the country used to be in the past.
You can sell see traces of their old neighbourhoods and way of life, like this free-standing, dilapidated (still in business!) restaurant right right beside the largest, most modern malls you can imagine.
Photograph of a very old restaurant and the way China was in the past, beside very modern trappings
Shanghai, is very modern (by Chinese standards), and is full of interesting (read: odd) skyscrapers, and offers the view of the Bund, which is where you can find many Chinese tourists gathering to ooh and aah over all the colours.
Shanghai’s The Bund skyline pictured
Being farmers and peasants from the country, they probably have never seen such beautiful, awe-inspiring skyscrapers in their lives.
THE LANGUAGE DIFFERENCE
They also have a different accent and dialect in Shanghai, but to be frank, I can’t really hear the difference between Shanghainese and Mandarin.
Shanghainese sounds prettier from what I’m told.
I just know that they don’t sound the same or use the same words.
Cantonese versus Mandarin however, is another story, as it is easier to hear the guttural, slurred sounds of Cantonese versus the sharper sounds of Mandarin.
I am also told by a few Chinese friends that Mandarin is what “all the cool kids speak”.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHINA AND NORTH AMERICA
For a foreigner who grew up in North America, it was less impressive to see something like the Bund in Shanghai, or all of their skyscrapers.
Photograph of one of the more “normal” looking skyscrapers in Shanghai
Don’t get me wrong, it was cool to see that skyscape, but it wasn’t something that blew my mind other than the colours, and their odd choices for topping these skyscrapers:
Photograph of one of the more interesting skyscrapers in Shanghai
Another one that is a little more out there was this bizarre spaceship topper…
I also found it rather gaudy, over-the-top, excessive and loud, but then again, that’s my North American sensibility coming through.
Shanghai’s The Bund skyline from the back
(via the view from the appropriately “Can Opener” skyscraper)
We don’t really have skylines that flash colours, play music and otherwise sing and dance.
As a foreigner, I was more interested in understanding their old way of living in China, and their past. I wasn’t afraid to peek around the corners, and try to uncover via observation (without knowing any Chinese or speaking to any locals) what it must be like to live there.
The pollution really is as bad as everyone says it is, as well.
There is a perpetual smog that you can taste (as disgusting as that sounds), and after about 2 days of being in Beijing, in the heart of the pollution, I developed a pretty bad sore throat and a cough.
Photograph of the Bund in Shanghai, with pollution coating the whole city
I’ve tried my best to show you how smoggy it is, but you don’t really feel it until you’re there.
It is POLLUTED.
I can understand why (rich) Chinese people flee overseas to escape all of this environmental nastiness.
WOULD I EVER GO BACK TO VISIT CHINA?
I think to go back, I’d have to really want to see something there, or have no choice in the matter.
Aside from the pollution, the general vibe of China is not conducive to my ever desiring to visit again. I didn’t feel uncomfortable there, but it’s not my style of country.
Perhaps if I went in the fields in the countryside, it would be different and interesting, but it’s not on my Travel list as a Must other than to visit as an experience.