My Trip to China in 2016
This Spring, I had the opportunity to visit China for a two weeks vacation tour. We were part of a group that was guided by a local Travel Agency out of Guilin. It is no exaggeration that this was a trip of a lifetime. We have visited quite a few locations throughout China and saw some amazing things. I took notes along the trip so I could report on what I saw and experienced. I've learned quite a bit of Chinese history and culture from our guides. Overall, it was a great vacation even though it was very exhausting.
- May 2016
Where Did We Go?
My wife and I joined a group of friends on a tour of China. This was no ordinary tour. Our trip took us over 1000 miles into seven cities starting in Beijing and ending in Hong Kong. We had traveled by bus by bullet train and by air flights and stayed at some of the finest Hotels. This tour was 6 years in the planning by the organizers and we were very fortunate to be included in this venture.
Our journey started in Beijing, flew to Datong, drove by bus to Pingyao, road bullet train to Xian, took flight to Guilin, took a 4 hour ride on a day cruise down the Li River, and finally flew to Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The following map charts most of our path. Some others in the group took an additional 3 days cruise on the Yangtze river.
The Great Wall
My wife and I are first generation immigrants from Taiwan. We came to the US many years ago and have been living in NY for over 40 years. We do speak the Mandarin language which is beneficial in China since it is the official dialect. This was my first trip to Mainland China. I had recently retired and this was one of our planned trips to see our homeland. My wife's family is from Sitchuan province and my family is from Shangtung province. However, we consider ourselves to be Americans and New Yorkers. My wife have been to China on 2 previous occasions. This was an unique trip all together.
Over my career at IBM, I had the opportunity to visit quite a few countries around the world and were familiar with the various differences of culture and economics. I have heard from relatives and friends about China and it's growing influence and wealth and wanted to see first hand the changes taking place there. I was not disappointed.
Masses at Forbidden City
Number One Pit
Xian City Gate
My Impressions of China
After spending 2 weeks there, I came away with a new understanding of China and the Chinese people. Despite our differences between China and the US on the government level, the people are pretty much the same. They want the same things, a better future for their children and family.
The main challenge for China is the vast number of people. Even with the one child policy for the last 30 years, their population is still 1.3 Billion, that's three times the US population with approximately the same land area. The new wealth gained from trade and adopting the western capitalistic economic system have helped many large cities but for the most part have left the countrysides behind.
There is no question that China's long history of contributions in culture, philosophy, architecture, science and engineering were in full view during my trip. From the Great Wall to the many temples to the terracotta warriors to the Buddhist shrines and old cities, the human accomplishments were inspiring and to be respected.
Instead of focusing on the many tourist sites which were impressive, I want to devote the rest of my commentary on modern China in 2016. China has many challenges ahead. They have a long way to go, in my opinion, in reaching the comparable state of America. Not that America is perfect but there are fundamental differences that make it harder for them to achieve greatness.
Traffic on Street
BYD Electric Vehicle
People with Face Masks
Some Constructive Criticism Part I
The following is a summary of comments and suggestions that I came away with during my trip. The opinions are just that, a personal observation along with my personal bias. However, I want to stipulate at the outset that they are made in a genuine effort to help China improve going forward and not meant to be a negative criticism in any way. I have divided my observations into 10 major area. I'm sure I'm not the first to make these observations having spoken to others that have visited China.
1. Population - The population rate and in specific, the ratio between men and women of marrying age in China is an on going problem. By current statistics, the ratio of men to women is currently 1.057 to 1. Since the institution of the one child policy in 1980 and now phased out in 2015, the controversial policy has long term implications for the Chinese people. By that number, there may be 28 million men that may not be able to find a wife. One of the fact that I learned from our guide is that minorities in China are exempt from the one child policy. China is not as monolithic as one might think. The majority are the Han people which accounts for 91% of the population. There are several minority groups that includes Zhuang at 17 million. In addition, I learned from our guide that some young people today are choosing to have one child even though the relaxed regulation. The main reason is economics. It is expensive to raise a child and some parents are choosing to improve their economic status rather than have a second child. This policy will also have affect on the pension system and the care of seniors. I don't want to debate the merits of the one child policy but in my opinion, it is better to let the people have the choice whenever possible. Collectively and individually, they will do what is best for their own situation. This is one of the tenets of Democracy and Conservatism.
2. Environment - Air and water quality is a major problem in China. Most of the areas we visited, have a smog atmosphere not unlike the US back in the 1970's in LA and NYC. Also, clean drinking water is not readily available. Bottled water is common and a necessity and tap water must be boiled before they can be consumed. One area we visited in Datong is a major coal producer and coal is still a necessary source of energy for the vast number of Chinese. The recent world view on Climate Change and the reduction of fossil fuel emissions have caused some problems for the common people whose livelihood depends on coal. In my opinion, the air quality issue should be separated from the climate change agreements. China must focus on reducing smog emissions so that the people can live in a clean air environment. It is a benefit for their health along the same line as reducing smoking in public places. China has a long way to go in educating the local populace on the cancer causing effect of smoking. On a positive note, I was surprised to find many electric Taxi and Buses being used along with electric scooters on the streets of the main cities. This helps reduce the emissions but much more needs to be done with gasoline and diesel automobiles and trucks. This problem is solvable as we have done here in the US. Having clean air and clean water is a basic necessity of any civilization.
3. Traffic and Transportation - The traffic in China is horrendous. I have to give kudos to all our bus drivers on this trip. They have shown skill and patience and stamina on the streets and roads traveled. The problem is not just congestion which we have in many major cities and highways. The problems I see have to do with several factors. Besides of the volume of cars and scooters and tricycles and bicycles and pedestrians sharing the same roads, it is the lack of respect for traffic signals and laws. The lane markings seems to have no effect. Cars and vehicles will move to any spots that are vacant. It is not unusual to see a motor scooter going the wrong way and the drivers seems to take it in stride. I am reminded of Thoreau's Walden Pond and "the masses of men leading a live of quiet desperation."
Some roadways are so narrow, it seems only one car or bus can pass and yet it is a two way road. For some unexplained reason, it seems to work. I saw very few accidents on this trip even though there were many close calls. I was surprised by the high number of electric scooters and buses and Taxis. Still, it makes little dent in the pollution problems of large cities. The one bright spot was the bullet train that we were on from Pinyao to Xian. It is fast, very quiet and well organized. There were individual assigned seats similar to airplanes and it ran on schedule. It is a much better experience than trying to get through airports. By the way, I see many drivers use cell phones and drive at the same time. It seems to be accepted practice. The one violation that was issued to our driver was during a check point stop before entering a highway and it was for a malfunctioning seat belt for the driver.
My only observation here is that Google should perform there road test of their self driving cars on Chinese roads. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.
4. Hygiene - There are several parts to this and they includes the availability and quality of public restrooms. Many places that we visited lacks proper toilets and toilet paper. Another issue is the odor that seems to be everywhere. I was told by some that part of the problem is the construction of sewers and drainage pipes. It seems that many lack the simple U trap in drains which prevents odor from seeping back into the air. Finally, almost everywhere we went, no matter cities or countrysides, the common practice of most homes of hanging laundry off the balcony. For some reason, they don't seem to have electric dryers. All these detract from the quality of life for citizens and visitors.
5. Personal Behavior - Common etiquette is somewhat lacking from some of the local population. They include public spitting, talking loudly on cell phones in public, shouting across the room in restaurants and just walking down the side walk and not observing simple right of way. I see people walking on streets where cars or scooters would beep their horns to no avail. The people just kept walking as if not a care in the world among the congested chaos. I realize some of this may be small notions but they should be taught in schools as part of civility and for the public good.
Some Constructive Criticism Part II
6. Censorship - In our hotels and wifi hot spots throughout China, I had trouble connecting to many of the news sites and to Google search engine. I was told by one of our guide that some web sites are blocked by the government. It is hard to determine which sites are under scrutiny because I am not sure whether it is due to poor connection, low bandwidth or intentional censorship. As a true believer in freedom of choice, I find this unacceptable. A government should not be in the business of censoring information. The people should be respected enough that they be given the access and let them decide what is best.
In a way, I view government as taking the role of our parents.They want to watch over us when we are young to protect us and keep us safe. At some point, they need to let go and let us make our own path. Government should not be the gate keeper of information. A free society works better when knowledge and information is freely available and exchanged.
An odd thing I should note as far as Gmail is concerned. Even though it is part of Google and supposedly blocked, I was able to at times download some emails on my Gmail account via my iPad. The problem is not all email came through. The one thing worse than not getting access to your email is getting only some and not others. The total breakdown of communications ensues.
7. Education - One of the items related to us by our guide is the education system in China. Apparently, in China, every person is restricted to the region of their birth. They must attend schools within their own district region. This seems rather arbitrary and limiting. I can understand this for grade schools but not for advance degrees. A student should be able to pursue their education choices based on their own merit and scholarship.
8. Economics - In this area, I am actually optimistic. From hearing our guides, they seem to get it. They are talking about copying our success economically. How they embrace the virtue of private ownership, hard work and pursuit of excellence and better education. It is ironic that in 2016, a communist country like China is adopting free enterprise and limited capitalism while in America, our young people are supporting Bernie Sanders for President, a self professed socialist.
9. Borders and Airport Security - One of the area that needs reform badly is the border situation and the airports. It is so difficult and time consuming to cross border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. It could take easily an hour or more to cross the two check points. I am told some people and students do it everyday.
The airport security check is the strictest I've experienced. Every individual is checked by a wand for minutes after going through the metal detector. China is the only place I know of that a spot check of your luggage is conducted upon leaving the secure area. I'm not kidding.
If China is going to be a world leader, they need to fix this inefficiency at the airports. You cannot expect people to spend two and a half hours to make a one hour flight from point A to Point B.
10. Religion - I was also surprised to learn the lack of religious influence in the daily lives of average citizens. Apparently, even in wedding ceremonies, religion has no role in modern China. They have many traditions and rituals when it comes to marriage and may rely on superstition and Feng Shui to pick the specific date. Even though we visited many Buddhist and Tao temples during our trip, it seems they serve more for tourist attractions than for official ceremonies. It is a sad commentary on leaving the rich historical past of many great religions. It reminded me of my visit to St. Petersburg, Russia years ago. I was able to visit many of the local Cathedrals that were preserved but serves no real purpose.
A quote from John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers -
"We have no government armed in power capable of contending in human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."
Sun Moon Pagodas in Guilin
A Slideshow of Our Tour on Youtube
Thanks to my son Jason for putting together this slideshow of our trip. It is approximately 8 minutes long. It included 3 music pieces that accompany the show. They are some of my favorite tunes.
1. Green Island - a classical Chinese song that is a favorite of all Chinese. The melody is very relaxing.
2. Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - It was the theme song in the 1980 Movie "Somewhere in Time" with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeves.
3. It's a Wonderful World - sung by my favorite artist Louis Armstrong.
I hope you enjoy the show...
A Video Tour of China 2016
I want to thank our tour guides and the bus drivers during our long journey through China. They have provided many details on Chinese culture and personal life stories that enriched my understanding of China and the Chinese people. The skill of the drivers in maneuvering around city traffic and winding mountain roads and dealing with unruly drivers are to be commended.
I also want to thank Odyssey Tours and our tour planners for taking the time to organize such an exotic tour itinerary. The trip went as planned and without miss steps or surprises which is a testament to their knowledge and expertise. They are professionals in every sense of the word and I thank them for a well executed trip.
Count My Blessings
As I am sitting here by my computer, I couldn't help but be grateful for my many blessings. I always believe that many Americans take things for granted. They have no idea of what goes on in another country less fortunate. We are the luckiest people on the face of the earth. I am grateful for the clean air in our town, the peace and quiet of our neighborhood. I am grateful for the clean water that runs into our houses and the sewer system that takes away our waste. I am grateful for the vast variety of fresh produce and meats in our supermarkets. The convenience of jumping into our cars and driving anywhere we wish. The nice roads with law abiding drivers and the convenience of EZpass. I am grateful for my freedom to access the WEB without censorship and the freedom to voice my opinions however unpopular without retributions. I am grateful for our Bill of Rights that guarantees freedom of Religion and of Speech and of the Press...and our Constitution. I thank God everyday that I live in the freest country in the world.
I am glad to make this trip of a lifetime to China. I felt I can contribute to it's progress in some small way by making some suggestions for improvement. I want China to succeed and in the process help the world succeed. We have many challenges as a world facing stagnant economic growth, environment destruction and increased tension on borders and threats of terrorism. Any progress in reducing tension and increasing prosperity will go a long way to help. Thanks for reading. I look forward to comments and feedback.
© 2016 Jack Lee