Summary of Nine Weeks in China Week 17 17th August 2011
We've spent about 9 weeks in China and driven about 7,750 km.

A journey through a very different culture at an interesting time in its development. A brief look at the long and varied history that led to today. Plus a few interesting and challenging adventures along the way.

In distance, we think we are about two thirds of the way to Europe. In time a little less. Our visas for Russia and Ukraine have fixed dates, we have 12 weeks before we exit Ukraine.

But that's just the mechanics of the trip! We weren't really sure what to expect of China, but we've enjoyed it. Hard work and tiring at times, we've been fully occupied, to the point that we needed to slow down a bit. Also effected by a minor, energy sapping, illness.

Totally impossible to describe or summarise, I wondered if I should even try, but here goes anyway.

When we started this blog we intended a page with about 10 photos for each week. In China we seem to have more than 20 photos on a page for almost each day. Its not that I like writing blogs, just an indication of how much we've found that has held our interest.

There's a vast difference between living in a country and visiting as a tourist, even for 60 days. At best we have a sense of life in China but really its the superficial view of a tourist, no matter how hard we try or pretend. Not complaining, just putting it in perspective.

Where Did We Drive?
We entered China from the South, from Laos into Yunnan Province.

Basically followed the Mekong further North, not quite to Tibet.

Then turned South again, across a bit, then North West into Szichuan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, Beijing, then North West to Inner Mongolia and the border.

We had a sense of following the edge of mountains after Yunnan, always on the left, with plains on the right.

This is a snapshot of the results of our automatic tracker. Many thanks to our friend Dave Clement for providing the tracker.

The always up to date automated  tracker can be found on the link from our home page.

What Have We Done?

Unlike previous countries we had a detailed itinerary planned. Necessary to agree with the travel agency and give our guide something to do. Not our usual style, but necessary. 

And now its good to look back when its all over.

We avoided cities except for Chengdu, Xi'an and Beijing. We managed some walking in at least 6 mountains and gorges, as well as a few gardens, and 7 or 8 natural attractions, like the Stone Forest. We visited about 4 museums plus 5 historic villages and a handful of historic, usually walled, towns. We found a couple of caves and attended 3 concerts. Lost count of the number of temples, and added in a couple of tombs. We made 3 visits to the Mongolian Consulate. And almost last, but not least, walked along a wild stretch of Great Wall.

We think that's both a busy itinerary and quite a variety in 60 days when we consider we also had to drive about 7,000 km, camp, shop and eat. A reasonably balanced itinerary for us that held our interest and prompted our curiosity.

And we met all sorts of interesting people while glimpsing snippets of everyday life.

Plus we wrote a blog and a diary, which can be quite time consuming but gives us a reasonable record, without which we would forget it all the sooner.

And added in a bit of truck maintenance.

What About the Landscape?

We now have a sense of the geography of China that we probably couldn't have gained from reading someone else's blog.

A feeling for the influence the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau have had in forming the mountains in the West of China. Some feeling of how the rivers that flow to the coast are formed and the obstacles they encounter on their somewhat tortuous journey.

We really hadn't grasped that China is so mountainous, nor that agriculture occurs to a very high altitude. And we should have guessed it was diverse.

Something about the importance of the plains and how they fostered the beginnings of Chinese civilisation. Of the origins of the unification of China and the impact the Mongols had on the course of Chinese history. Of the early efforts to control nature through irrigation schemes, some of which have survived to this day.

An idea of how the mountains have partially separated North and South China and the trade routes that evolved through them.

Some idea of the role that coal has played in the industrialisation of the North of China and the consequent pollution.

We could see the after effects of a landscape once covered by a sea in the limestone (karst) areas. And a landscape covered in fine dust from the Gobi Desert (Loess).

And just a sense of how people have used the landscape while the landscape has inevitably shaped people's lives. Of places like the Hani Rice Terraces where the agricultural system is sustainable, as demonstrated over a millenium. And places like the Loess Plateau where unsustainable practices have led to erosion and loss of livelihood requiring government and international intervention to hopefully recover.

And of course Beijing, a capital located on a plain with no obvious river. Apparently located close to Mongolia by its founder, for no better reason than it was close. Hardly good real estate practice but I guess it worked in the end.

And The Wildlife

Unfortunately we either weren't patient enough, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or there isn't any.

It seems that China, like the SE Asian countries we've already visited, is a country in which its difficult to observe the wildlife. Perhaps we just didn't know how.

We Like Chinese People.

Relaxed, friendly, helpful, curious, polite .... what else can we say.

The people have been a delight for us. We've had to get used to being objects of curiosity, but once we got used to the idea that its simply the way it is then we could relax.

At times we did feel a bit overwhelmed, and our privacy invaded, but learned to go with the flow. We will probably never be comfortable playing space invaders where complete strangers feel obliged to test the comfort of our seats. But eventually curiosity is satisfied and people carried on with their lives. When we really needed to we simply closed the door, the windows are (by design) high enough to repel even the tallest of basket ball players.

Like the rest of Asia so far a smile goes a long way when there's no common language. We haven't felt in the least threatened or even uncomfortable.

There are obvious physical differences between the shorter, slightly built Southerners and the taller, more heavily built Northerners. Probably the result of very different diets and climate. There are pot bellies and overweight kids in the North, but not in the South that we observed.

There are also differences between the majority Han Chinese and the minority ethnic groups that we encountered in the South West. Towards the end we are seeing more differences as we enter Inner Mongolia. This is a diverse nation, unified politically and in name but supporting many differences.

We also developed a sense that China has been connected with the surrounding countries over the millenia, for example among our first experiences in China were of people who became Thai when the moved back home. The Silk Road, and other trade routes, didn't just convey silk.

And we did enjoy the local dress and dances when we first arrived.

We've Been Well Fed.

Eating is a very communal affair. And very different to the Westernised Chinese Restaurant we are used to in Aus or UK.

Our aim in China has been to eat at a restaurant at least once per day.

Breakfast has been either something "simple" like toast and marmalade, though margarine ran out a few times, or Bao (filled steamed dough). Lunch was whatever was on offer, quite often crackers and tomatoes, or similar. Evening meal we ate out as often as we could, but sometimes were parked away from restaurants so simply made up our own noodles.

We have joked about "meat and two veg!". We've taken to ordering one meat dish and two vegetable dishes, usually with rice. Most times we haven't tasted the veg previously and of course they are difficult to recognise when cooked. We've also had noodles of course. And the other source of starch is "dumplings". We ate potatoes once and carrots twice. We seemed to eat a lot of melons - the bitter ones, cooked as a veggie with various spices.

As we've traveled Northwards the dominance of rice in the fields has given way to corn. Thus we even ate at two restaurants that didn't serve rice.

We've also noticed that the spicy food we encountered when first crossing the border gave way to the more subtle flavours of Szichuan and then the almost bland (at least to our now destroyed palates) spices of the North.

And as we entered Inner Mongolia we began to see bigger lumps of meat plus colder weather vegetables like potatoes.

Of Emperors And One China.

Emperors, Dynasties, Unification and Separation, Wars, Invasions, with now economic and social upheaval.

Perhaps rather than trying to describe Chinese history here (it can be read about elsewhere) we will simply feel sad for its loss. We developed a craving for authenticity that seems to be missing from the overly restored historical places we visited.

Perhaps its just that people will always destroy that which they value, be it natural atractions or historical. Concrete dinosaurs really have no appeal for us. Neither do streets imitating the architecture of 1000 years ago but newly rebuilt and full of souvenir and tourist shops. 

But we looked at a few just to check. And hopefully were able to look sufficiently past the glitz to a picture of another, lost, world.

The images of ancient trade routes, provided in part by plank roads, of course caught our imagination. As did the exchange of tea for horses.

We did find it a little odd that public transport doesn't seem to have figured in Chinese history until fairly recently. Certainly no obvious stage coaches using the network of trade routes. Travel seems to have been reserved for traders and businessmen.

And we did of course find sufficient authenticity to satisfy ourselves. What a fascinating culture.

Religion and The State

It will probably take us a lifetime to understand how Chinese society has evolved and operates.

We don't have a good grasp of Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism. We also don't have a grasp of the role of Emperors as Gods. And we also don't have a grasp of local government and the court system. But we have a sneaking suspicion they are all tied together.

Difficult for us to imagine having been dragged up in a society where church, state, and legal system are clearly separated. Apart from the Pommie Queen being head of a Church, but that's more because they need a head than any special qualities of the Queen.

With our beliefs it is almost impossible to ascribe any special status to people who hold positions of power. To try to add a religious dimension to that plays havoc with our minds.

We suspect that this intermingling of things we keep separate results in an acceptance of authority that is alien to us. We also sense, but that's all it is, a vague sense, that it is slowly changing in China.

The Trappings Of State

Apart from Tianenmen Square, and the imperial looking buildings around it, we saw very few administrative buildings. No courts, a few post offices hidden away, no town halls, and the banks were all new.

Perhaps we didn't look hard enough.

We're not sure of the significance of this observation. Just that its different to what we are used to.

How Not To Be Too Scared While Driving In China.

Driving was always going to be a challenge. 

We have been driving on the wrong side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side in a country with seemingly alien driving habits.

But after 9 weeks we are becoming comfortable. It all happens at a much slower pace in Asia than in other countries. There is a sense of urgency, but also a feeling of reality. A sense that if there is a bicycle being pedalled by an octogenarian in front of a fully laden articulated truck neither is going to go faster than the octogenarian can pedal.

There is a wider range of vehicles on these roads with a wide range of capabilities. Its inevitable that there is some ducking and weaving. They may not be written down but there are rules and acceptable etiquette. All helped with a bit of brinkmanship, playing chicken, and various ways of attempting intimidation. And very little driver to driver eye contact - more a sort of permanently bored and relaxed expression.

We've become a little used to reading the traffic and predicting where vehicles will move. But having said that its also changed as we travel through the country.

Surprisingly, Beijing traffic is remarkably well behaved. The most obvious difference being a better developed lane discipline. Taxi drivers are also more relaxed, unlike Chengdu for example where every one of them is a frustrated racing car driver.

It all happens at a much slower pace than we are used to. It took time to get used to judging the flow. For a while it felt like a movie played in slow motion.

The maneuvers which most caused us difficulty were 

  • turning left across an oncoming stream of traffic - its expected that it will happen rather than wait for no more oncoming - not at right angles, about 30 degrees,
  • giving way on entering roundabouts where there seems to be a continual negotiation rather than a dogmatic "give way to traffic from the left"
  • vehicles turning right into a stream of traffic which simply enter the flow rather than waiting for someone to leave them space,
  • vehicles merging onto the expressway that attempt to merge first then very slowly build up speed,
  • the horn and flashing headlights are used for "look out I'm coming through", and its expected, not "I've seen you, carry on",

There's no point in trying to judge the right or wrong of these maneuvers based on Aus, European or US traffic rules. Its just the way it is. It works. Just a case of getting the hang of it.

And of course there are subtle regional variations.

Nearly there, now its time to move to another country!

Expressways and Dirt Tracks

Two aspects to road condition were traffic and the road itself.

Mixed is about what we'd expect in a country this size.

Generally the expressways were in good condition. Not the smoothest though. Occasionally rough bits, sometimes on the joins to bridges, sometimes just where trucks have damaged the surface. Warnings of roadworks varied from signs telling us how far to them through red flags to no warning. There was very little indication of which lane is closed.

The local long distance roads (provincial roads?) were mixed but generally rougher than expressways and through the middle of towns and villlages. Potholes and areas with no surface at all are frequent. Wheel ruts common. Roadworks can continue for several km and are usually very rough to drive on.

And then there were "country" roads. We met cobbles, concrete, gravel, dirt, etc. Some were good, some were bad, some were very bad. It wasn't predictable from the map.

For us the limit on our speed is a combination of road surface and corners. We travel faster than large trucks but found overtaking them fairly easy as they are relatively slow. The corners slow us down because of the lack of camber and our weight (4.5 tonne) - its harder to stop if something is coming the other way on the wrong side or simply a slow vehicle in front.

We guestimate our average speed as around 70 km/hr and max around 90 km/hr on expressways. Provincial roads much more variable, average around 50 km/hr and max around 75 km/hr. Country roads have been as low as average 15-20 km/hr with max around 60 km/hr.

Best description we have of driving is that it would have been tedious if there weren't so many things to see.

What Was the Weather Like?

We had temperatures between low 20s and high 30s deg C. Humidity was always relatively high. As high as 90%. A bit uncomfortable for us at times but sleep was manageable as night time temperatures were usually lower.

It was obviously cooler at higher altitude.

Most obvious though was the lack of visibility which became worse as we moved further North.

Some of it was just simple haze, but mostly pollution.

I was brought up on a treeless island with views forever. Even walking in trees is a bit claustrophobic. The Chinese haze was thus a bit oppressive. We knew there were mountains to be seen, but we couldn't see them.

Its not always hazy. Just that it was hazy on the days we were there.

Having said that photos of constant sunshine would have been boring. The haze can lend a different atmosphere, a bit of earieness sometimes.

Motorhome Camping is Easy

China is full of people, and all the useful land is made use of. Crops are grown right up to the roadside. Roads are built with edges with very few places to drive off them. Thus, flat camping areas in attractive places can be hard to find.

Having said that it became surprisingly easy to find a parking spot for Tardis. We've seen some very scenic rubbish bins - a polite way of saying we couldn't be picky. Apart from Beijing where we spent 4 nights the most in one place was 2 nights.

Mostly we were in car parks next to attractions. For the price of car parking. We also camped outside restaurants where we ate. Once in a police station car park. Outside a private house. In hotel car parks. And once in a camping park. We had to remove the exhaust once to be low enough to get into a car park.

We had a couple of refusals. We didn't expect city center large hotels to be helpful and they lived up to our expectations. Generally car park attendants are most helpful.

Security wasn't an issue. It "felt" safe once the car park people knew we were there.

We found water as we could. Quite often a tap in the car park - fill the bucket and pump into our tanks. Always treated it with chlorine. Occasionally we got a couple of buckets full when it rained.

Emptying our loo cassette was typically at the public loos next to our camp, or in fuel station loos. Public loos are not the most exciting places in China, we were pleased we had our own.

We finally got used to finding a bit of waste ground next to the road to let out our grey water. Waste ground usually meant lots of litter and rubbish dumped. We wouldn't have been happy with this approach in Aus. We'll find a longer hose for Europe.

Food scraps and packaging (of which there is much less than Aus) were easily disposed of in rubbish bins.

Perhaps the most difficult part has been finding time for washing clothes. Apart from Chengdu where we used a Chinese Laundry we've done the washing in a bucket. Only some of our parking spots were suitable for a washing line. Our shower has a clothes line which helped with smalls but things like sheets were really an every so often thing.

Self DriveWith Guide

I'll remember Susanna in sandals for her "the track is slippery and my feet are like fish" comment half way down the very steep track from the Great Wall.

There are a few other "Susannaisms", like "I think you ought to know that we aren't totally lost .... yet" which we will hopefully remember. And thanks for not getting upset when we laughed.

I'll also remember the wonderful smile that greeted us as we approached the Immigration desk at Mohan. Perhaps it was also a sigh of relief - it can't be easy waiting for a pair of geriatric foreign strangers to arrive late at a border.

It was always going to be interesting having three people in Tardis instead of the two it was designed for.

It depends on the people, and we've been lucky.

Having a guide is mandatory for self driving in China so we made the best of it.

In addition we had an itinerary with fixed arrival and departure dates and places. We are more used to making it up as we go along.

Decision making became a three way exercise. We had a couple of incidents where we forgot but otherwise it worked. Usually some time in the evening we had a "what are we doing tomorrow" discussion. We also got used to leaving our options open - for instance, if the provincial roads were a bit heavy going we'd find an expressway, or visit somewhere and leave the decision about whether to camp or move on until later in the day. We also tinkered with the itinerary.

It probably took a couple of weeks of experience to understand that our preference was to walk around and explore rather than be carried around and guided. The finale on the Great Wall hints at how well we conveyed that. Very difficult to describe in advance for an itinerary. Its not just a case of "we like walking".

Flexibility is always interesting. As with lots of situations we found it useful to begin discussing variations and change a few days ahead of time. That gives everyone involved time to think and make useful suggestions. There's no point in applying pressure when none is required.

I think we were fortunate that Susanna had done some independent hiking in the West of Szichuan. Some understanding of what we enjoy.

It also helped that we arrived reasonably quickly at an understanding of what we thought was expensive and what was acceptable. It would be easy for a guide to get that bit wrong. The willingness to sleep in the Tardis, to find an appropriate restaurant, to find little ways (like old age discounts) to reduce costs, and even to simply advise "that's too expensive" all helped with the confidence and necessary trust. 

And yes, while sad to leave Susanna at the border we are also looking forward to being just the two of us again. 

Economic Theory Meets Social Reality.

Its been impossible for us to be in China and not observe the pace of development and the economic differences between regions and people.

There seems to be a reasonable understanding of the imbalance between the need to develop and the impact on the environment. We sense that the people we met are somewhat resigned to it as they can't influence it. Somewhat frustrating for us as we are aware that development and environmental awareness are not so mutually exclusive as at this stage of China's development.

We also couldn't help noticing that the vehicle of choice for high speed long distance expressway travel seemed to be Mercedes, Audis and BMWs. Unlike the countries further South, with their dominance of utilities, most personal vehicles in China seem to be small Japanese cars or VWs.

But while there are a lot of cars they are spread thinly in a large population. Our superficial observation is that there is a huge economic gulf between the haves and have nots, and between cities and country. More noticeable than perhaps any country in which we have previously traveled. We really are moved to wonder whether it will become a source of social unrest or the government has a bunny in the hat.

Real estate, or at least the high rise apartment variety in the cities, is in demand with prices rising faster than consumables. Market forces meet totalitarian communist government.

We also couldn't help noticing that "user pays" is as bad as it gets here. Coupled with a lack of public space we found it quite oppressive. Or perhaps we just dislike traveling or tourism becoming just another economic activity.

In the economic scheme of things we are low volume low value tourists. The target, as with lots of countries infiltrated by rational economic wisdom is of course low volume high value tourism. A game we studiously avoid and will readily laugh at those caught up in its dubious attraction.

One tiny aspect which left me confused was the advertising hordings alongside the expressways. In a culture which has a long history of the use of symbols, imagery and stories it surprised us that there was very little imagery contained in the hordings, typically just words and numbers. Perhaps we missed something in the written language.

But on a lighter note. China has a history of grand designs, perpetrated by the powerful on the masses for the greater good. The Great Wall was just one of the things to come from the first Emperor's reign. As Australians, subject to the current politics of the National Broadband Network rollout we were left wondering if any of the courtiers at the time of wall building were silly enough to roll up to the Emperor with a quick "hey Emp ... just thinking about this wall thing ... and wondering if you've had a cost benefit analysis done on it?".

We have a sneaking suspicion that although the wall was completed, and subsequently enhanced, it could have been considered successful as a nation building exercise, but whether it really achieved its primary aim of keeping the Mongols out is probably lost in political history and the spin of the day.

If nothing else our visit will hopefully allow us to observe the future political and social development of China with a pretence of some understanding. Though hopefully we won't become "when I"s (as in "when I was in China ....".

What's Next For The Intrepid Duo!


We cross the border on Wednesday 17th.

It will be very different and hopefully we'll approach it with an open mind.

On a practical note. We haven't a clue what internet connections will be like. The blog has been enjoyable to write. Without it I probably would have forgotten a lot more of what we've seen - one of the prices of growing older. Thanks to lots of people for comments and encouragement.

We'll continue writing the blog and upload it as opportunities present.

First Two Days in Mongolia Week 17 17th - 18th August 2011

John Head Tue, 16 Aug 11 21:18:10 +1000
I have really enjoyed reading your blog. Congratulations on a terrific and wise summary.

Bob Archie Wed, 17 Aug 11 12:16:23 +1000
I have been reading your trip thru China and really enjoyed. I am looking forward to following your trip further as you update when you can.

Lisa Leake Wed, 17 Aug 11 14:20:10 +1000
Thank you so much for the insightfullness of your blog. We are building an expedition vehicle purely for Oz travel, and seem to have a lot of the same philosophy as you - self-sufficiency, low environmental impact and the need to see the 'real' stuff out there. I have so enjoyed accompanying you on your trip thru China - really looking forward to the rest of the trip.

Brother Fri, 19 Aug 11 06:40:16 +1000
They're still on course to get married - would hate your little trip to Scotland to be in vain!
The Wall looked terrific. Al

Miles & Marina Sun, 21 Aug 11 20:20:22 +1000
Fantastic commentary Julian. We love reading your blog which has been written with such reflection of what you have seen and experienced. For us following in your footsteps next year,..... well, wheel tracks, its an invaluable record. Looking forward to the next instalments

Sally Carman Thu, 25 Aug 11 16:04:00 +1000
I`ve just read your insightful summary of the China Stage
Very revealing of such a big , important country
continue to go well

Daughter Jennifer Fri, 26 Aug 11 18:27:33 +1000
My Home Room class at school wanted to wish you luck!! But I forgot so it is a little belated, oops! Tell Mum good luck too.

Sorry, comments closed.