By Andrew Matheson
On our recent tour of China’s Silk Road jaws were dropping every day, and bucket list items ticked off regularly. We visited some amazing places — treasure troves of Buddhist art, an ancient watering system that makes the desert bloom in one of the driest places on earth, and of course the terracotta warriors. We walked on the Great Wall, travelled through the vast Gobi desert, and gazed in awe at 7,500 metre high mountains near the border with Pakistan.
But, as with most tours, the everyday things were just as fascinating as the big ticket items. Visiting markets, walking the streets and joining locals in restaurants were all really interesting. We had lots of questions. How and where do people live? What are their aspirations? How has the end of the one-child policy affected young couples? (Spoiler alert: not much at all.)
People in our tour group came to China with expectations and preconceptions. No, of course they didn’t expect to see everyone wearing Mao suits while peddling around on bicycles. But the name China still conjures up images of bustle, noise and chaos. Many people expect travel there, at least off the beaten track, to be gritty and hard. On our tour everyone got a surprise by what they saw. I was among them.
I first visited China 25 years ago, so I have seen hordes of black bicycles clogging the streets. But I’ve visited regularly since, and lived there for three years. I’ve witnessed how much the country has developed, and how its society has rapidly changed. I was in China as recently as Christmas. Yet I was still amazed by the scale and pace of change that we saw on this trip.
The most obvious changes are in housing and infrastructure. The scale of housing development is simply unimaginable, as apartment buildings spring up like the weeds in my garden. It’s not just the number, though, but the quality. We spoke to people who were delighted by the opportunity to move out of utilitarian accommodation and into large, new apartments with all modern facilities. Young people particularly liked the increased choices they had to live as a couple rather than an addition to their parents’ or in-laws household. We spoke to young people who owned more than one apartment, and had become landlords.
There are more subtle signs of progress too. China is way ahead of New Zealand in phone-based payment systems, so easy to use that one of our local guides reckoned her grandmother found them a doddle. We noticed that while we foreigners fed banknotes into vending machines to buy drinks, locals simply scanned their phones to make purchases. The bicycles are pretty much all gone, replaced by e-bikes or electric scooters. The pedal-powered or motorised three-wheelers are all electric too.
And infrastructure. Look and weep, New Zealand. We drove almost everywhere on modern motorways. Where there wasn’t a motorway one was being built. Even where there was a motorway, another one might be under construction nearby, to relieve congestion. High-speed rail lines criss-cross the country, boring through mountains and soaring over valleys as if they didn’t exist. Even in provincial cities (say of 5 million people or so), airport terminals are gleaming and modern, and quiet and uncongested inside. “How can I explain this to people back home?”, one of our group wondered.
And, no, this doesn’t come at some huge environmental cost. The landscape seemed every bit as well protected as if these developments had been done in New Zealand. Property rights are a different question, though. Land is leased in China, not held with freehold title, and if your farm or home is in the way of a new motorway or rail line you don’t have a lot of say in what happens next. There will be compensation, probably involving the offer of a new home or farm, but whether that offer is equivalent is contestable.
Political rights, and freedom to dissent, are very different in China too. Our tour group saw this first-hand when visiting the far west province of Xinjiang, where the rights of ethnic groups such as Uighur, Tajik and Kazakh are the subject of international concern. There is extremely intense surveillance over the movement of people and vehicles, which we were subject to. Just this month, since our visit, the Chinese government has admitted the existence of detention or ‘re-education’ camps that it had previously denied even in the face of international criticism. Don’t pack your rose-tinted spectacles.
Many commentators say the 21st century will be the Asian century. Some go further and say this will really be the Chinese century. At the moment many other world powers are distracted: the USA taking a different course on multilateral engagement, the EU striving to maintain internal cohesion, and Russia focussed on its neighbours and surrounding region. China is playing the long game. It is continuing its extraordinary trajectory of development, while playing a more assertive and influential role across the globe, not least through its Belt and Road Initiative.
Visiting China will deeply enrich your understanding of the country that will play a pivotal role in the world’s future. After a visit you will know a lot more than when you set out. But — and here is one of the intriguing things about visiting China — you’re likely to come away with more questions than you arrived with. As one of our group said, it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. On our tour we did well with the pieces around the edges, but even after weeks of travelling there was still a lot more of the middle to complete.
My next tour to China is to the southern provinces of Yunnan and Tibet in June 2019. As with the Silk Road tour, we will explore regions not often visited by international travellers. We will see astounding scenery, but will also be challenged by the place in society of ethnic and religious minorities. And although I’ve been to most of the places before, I expect to be amazed by the differences since I was there last. The more I discover, the more I realise how complex China is. That’s what makes travel there endlessly rewarding.