The Bund at night

There is something seriously sexy about The Bund.  Lovely, grand, historic buildings line the decedent waterfront of the Huangpu River affording an old-world charm, albeit European, to the “Paris of the Orient“.

Built around the start of the first Opium War and the consequent concessions, the lovely historical buildings of The Bund were constructed over a period of years starting in 1840 until 1930.  The “Bund” which translates into the “embankment” or “embanked quay” reflects a multitude of architectural influences signifying the international flavor of Shanghai at the time. The old historic buildings that once housed large banking and trading companies, businesses and foreign consuls, represent a bouquet of different architectural styles.  One can find Gothic, Baroque, Rome, Renaissance, Classic, as well as both Eastern and Western influences among the buildings.  It is truly a delightful place, especially at night when the city lights aluminate this spectacular strip of buildings.

The Bund is particularly sensual at night.  When the lights are beaming up onto the building’s arches and splendor, it is a magical place that is definitely worth an evening stroll.

Here are the highlights of the Bund at night.  Enjoy!

A not so great picture of the Bund as seen through our hotel window….amazingly beautiful!


Shanghai: The Decadent Little Sister

I love this picture! Photo taken out of hotel bathroom looking down at the Bund.

The best way to explore the sharp contrast between old versus new in China is to visit Beijing and Shanghai in the first week.  While Beijing is old, historical and brimming with culture, Shanghai is ultra modern, cosmopolitan and chic.

One of the country’s most vibrant and modern cities, Shanghai, meaning “by the sea” is going places that China as a whole dreams of heading.  Given Shanghai’s strategic location as a gateway to the Yangzi River, it was first established as a small port town and eventually grew to a population of 50,000 in the late 17th century.  The real future and fate of Shanghai occurred after the opening of the British concession in 1842 which lead to a period of dramatic growth, splendor and decadence.

Shortly after the British arrived, the Americans and French followed and Shanghai became an economic powerhouse financed by opium, silk and tea trade.  As the city blossomed and grew, large finance houses set up shop leading Shanghai into a period of robust growth and economic supremacy.  There was a long period of vice and decadence as the city became filled with whorehouses, opium dens and gambling parlours which eventually were cleaned up only to lead the city into a long period of malaise and decay.

Shanghai was revitalized in the early 1990s when the decision was made to develop a swampy, vacant farmland on the eastern side of the Huangpy River.  This area, today known as Pudong, is one of the most ultra-modern, brilliantly colorful skylines in all of China save for Hong Kong.  Being in Pudong, it is unbelievable to see this modern, dazzling supersized city that was all built within the last 20 years mirroring the sensational growth of China herself.

To me, Shanghai is a fascinating, complex city beaming with lights, color, vibrancy and of course good old contradictions.  While The Bund represents the prestigious, old-world charm of the past, Pudong represents the dramatic future of China, the number two economic country in the world.  Shanghai perfectly brought the old and the new all together in one big, luminous city full of paradoxes for the perceptive traveler.  I fell in love with its complexity, beauty, modernity and historic charm.  It is a place that summoned up so much of my feelings about China, and a fabulous way to end the trip.

Stay tuned..My next post series will be all about Shanghai and all this phenomenal city has to offer. I will cover the Bund, Pudong, The French Concession, Old Town, Shanghai Shopping, Chinese Street Smarts and more….plus I will probably throw in some Tucson posts since I’ve never blogged about lovely Tucson, Arizona before and it is a cool place.  Thanks for reading!


Screaming by on the Beijing-Shanghai High Speed G Train

Leaving Beijing, we had our first taste of heavy traffic and wet rain.  We were ready to leave the dreary weather (or so we hoped) and head south to Shanghai known as Beijing’s decadent little sister.  Although I truly enjoyed Beijing’s majestic Forbidden City, ancient hutongs and scattered parks, I really was getting tired of the smoggy, cold weather.  Plus the food options were becoming limiting (that happens when you don’t especially like Chinese food) and I knew that I would find much more variety and international fare in cosmopolitan Shanghai.  It was time to leave.

Photo below taken during our hour-long taxi ride to Beijing South Railway Station.  The further we got out off town and along the Ring Road, the more of these ugly Soviet-era apartment complexes there were.  It made me realize just how insanely big Beijing is and how densely the people live.  This represents one of hundreds if not thousands of these kinds of living complexes. 

In my opinion, there is no better way to see some of the countryside and what is really going on in China than to travel by train. There is something nostalgic about train travel.  You can sit back, relax and watch the world go by or in the case of China’s high-speed G trains, watch the world scream by.

The Beijing-Shanghai G Train is one of the longest and highest quality high-speed railways in the world with a designed speed of 350 km per hour.  It makes the 1,318 km/819 mile long journey between Beijing and Shanghai take a mere 4 hours and 48 minutes with a brief stop at Nanjing.  Launched in June of 2011, the railway was the first one designed for speeds up to 380 km/hour (236 miles/hour), making it the fastest train in the world.  The journey from Beijing to Shanghai took 3 hours and 58 minutes compared to 9 hours and 49 minutes on parallel railways with conventional trains. However, after a few mishaps shortly after its launch, the train was slowed down to its current rate averaging 300 km per hour/186 miles per hour.

Photo below:  Pulling up into the Beijing train station I am amazed by its modernity and vastness.  There are railways everywhere. 

Entering Beijing’s train station which is extremely modern (except for the bathrooms: Squat toilets of course).  Security was tight and the place was packed.  

An up close look at a G Train.  Impressive! 

There are rows and rows of G Trains waiting for its passengers to board.  Each train has a “sightseeing” class with only four luxurious seats, one section of first-class seats (with about twenty-four seats) and 16 trains of regular coach seats.

Leaving Beijing there are tons of buildings in the midst of construction.  We made a joke that the national bird of China is the “Crane”.

Per GMO (9/2011), “over 200 skyscrapers are under construction in China today.  This is equivalent to the total number of skyscrapers in the U.S. today”.


As the train slowly rolls out of Beijing, passing by one new building conglomerate after the other, it becomes evident what is really going on in China.

“A giant smog of unreality hangs over Chinese property.  SocGen calculates that over the last decade, China has completed 16 billion square meters of floor space.  This is equivalent to building Rome every two weeks” (SocGen, June 23, 2011)”.

As we would soon witness during our five hour train ride, this construction boom has resulted in vast “Ghost cities” across China in which there are no inhabitants and the cranes cease to be working.   The China National Bureau of Statistics and GMO estimate that there will be up to 75 million new homes built this year.

Per the Financial Times*:

“After a decade of soaring prices, signs are that the world’s most populous nation faces its first real estate crash.  That would be dire for other countries that rely on China to fuel their own economic growth”.

Some scary trends:

  • Home prices in Beijing have risen by about 150 percent in the past four years.
  • Residential transactions are down 11.6 percent from last year, all across China.
  • Analysts say an urban apartment costs 8-10 times the average annual income nationwide.  In Beijing and Shanghai the multiple is closer to 30.
  • Construction accounts for 13 percent of the economy, one-quarter of all investment and 40 percent of steel use.

*Source:  Financial Times “A lofty ceiling reached” (12/14/2011 by Jamil Anderlini).

As we head out of Beijing, passing by all the look-a-like buildings and apartment complexes, the G Train finally starts to pick up speed reaching of dizzying 306 km/hr or 190 miles/hour.  It is the fastest speed I’ve ever traveled by train and my stomach felt it.

Finally we had left Beijing and were in the countryside and it was beautiful ….but not for long.

Ghost cities appeared in the distant horizon and it freaked me out….they were everywhere!

This photo below spooked me the most.  We were in the middle of nowhere and in the distance there was a gigantic “Ghost City” where everything had stopped in time, uncompleted.  The initial belief of the Chinese government and real estate tycoons was “we will build and they will follow”.  Not so sure if it is true.

After almost five hours of passing ghost town after ghost town, I was fascinated and in shock.  I have never seen such massive construction and building anywhere before.  It is phenomenal.  In a country where property construction accounts for an estimated 13% of GDP in the world’s second largest economy, what will happen when the real estate bubble comes to a half?  The economic ramifications for China, its people and the world are frightening.  Let’s hope for a soft landing. 

Arrival at Shanghai’s Rail Station…..and on to the next adventure. 

Stay Tuned…more Shanghai surprises coming soon!  

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION

Beijing at night

When you think of China’s city lights. your mind often rests on Shanghai and Hong Kong:  Big cities, amazing skyscrapers and incredible lighting at night.  These cities sometimes feel like Disneyland or Vegas, captivating your souls and imagination.  There is an odd resemblance to Christmas, as the city lays aglow in uncanny lights.

After visiting Shanghai I admit that the city’s evening lights are unbelievable and mesmerizing.  I instantly fell in love with the city at night, and felt that Shanghai was almost right up there with Paris, the City of Lights (yet I prefer the older city atmosphere of Paris over the newly built, ultra modern Shanghai).  I could have sat there all night admiring the lights over the Bund and Pudong in Shanghai.  I had never seen anything quite like it before and I realized that the night in Shanghai was by far more beautiful than the day time when the city was awash in pollution, traffic and noise.

For as much as Shanghai’s lights beckon,  I believe that Beijing’s city lights are highly under-rated and definitely worth admiring.  Maybe it is the old-world architecture that I fancy or perhaps the initial belief that Beijing would be uneventful.  One night in Beijing proved that my assumptions were wrong.  It was not a gray, dull, boring city.  Instead, it is an ancient city beaming with life as soon as the sun sets.  

The beauty of Beijing at night can’t be denied.  It is a place worth exploring with your eyes wide open….

The Forbidden City at night is unbelievably spectacular.  My only regret is that I’m not a better photographer as I was unable to truly capture the dreamlike nature of this place at night.  

View from the cab.  I love this photo.  I feel that it captures the true energy of Beijing at night.  I took it from our cab window obviously while we were moving. 

Picture of Ghost Street, the renowned street with any kind of Chinese food that your heart desires.  

Right outside of our hotel was one of the largest street food venues I’d seen.  It was bustling with activity as soon as the sun set.  Hungry customers lined up and ordered their meals on a stick to go (of course cooked fresh right in front of their eyes). 

The main pedestrian street at night was filled with colors and entertainment.  There were enormous flat screened TVs built into the sides of buildings.  Kind of reminded me again of Vegas or New York.  

Restaurants awaited hungry customers….

My only regret was that I was too tired from jet lag and walking eight hours throughout the day to stay up later and enjoy the sensational beauty of Beijing at night.  For the city’s secrets are often revealed at night when it is quite, more peaceful and full of a different kind of life.


How to get around urban China like the Chinese

Throughout my stay in urban China, I was bemused, amazed, surprised and continually fascinated by the resourcefulness of the Chinese in regards to modes of transportation.  Here is a photo blog of what inspired me.

When getting around or transporting goods, anything works, especially bicycles!   

These were the “party bikes” located in the bar zone of the Hutongs.  I loved seeing all the young Chinese gals cruise around on these fun bikes for bar hopping.  

One of many bike parks.  I loved the electric bikes.  They were sleek and quiet.  You hardly knew they were there.  

I especially loved these little bicycles.  Not sure if they have a special name or not.  But they sure are cute! 

With such heavy traffic and high costs for cars and trucks, it is no wonder the bicycle is the number one mode of transportation for both people and goods.  

Sidewalks, streets and highways…no matter!  If you are a pedestrian, you just had to watch out for passing motorcycles and bikes! 

Meals on Wheels!  Hungry anyone?

The Daily Commute:  Beijing.  (Look at all the smog!).  

I loved these little “tin cars”.  There was no way I was ever going to step foot in one of them though.  I don’t think you’d come out alive if you got in an accident in one of these little cars.  I even saw them on the highways!  Scary. 

Thankfully Beijing had their own devoted “Bike and Motorbike” lane.  This made things far safer except of course at the intersections where it was a free for all between bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians and cars! 

There are plenty of buses in China which is a cheap and affordable way to travel.  

A motorcycle park.  Genius idea! 

Driving is the most dangerous mode of transportation in all of China.  Per Lonely Planet China, “China’s roads kill without mercy.  Traffic accidents are the major cause of death for people aged 15 and 45, and the World Health Organization estimates there are 600 traffic death a day!”.   After spending ten days in China, I completely understood these facts.  Driving is crazy there (like many big cities in the world) and it was even more scary being a pedestrian in Beijing.  Vehicles do not think twice about driving right towards pedestrians even if there is a walk sign in the cross walk.  You have to really be careful and use a 360 view when crossing the street (if you want to make it safely across!).

I had heard about these graphic displays of “Traffic accidents and resulting deaths” before and was thus forewarned that they are disturbing.  Here is a display set up in the heart of Beijing.  The police were passing out flyers with pictures in case these warning signs weren’t enough. 

After seeing these graphic displays of fear, I was a bit weary getting in taxis (especially in Shanghai where our hired cab driver drove over 100 mph on the highways, passing on the shoulder.  I finally told him to slow down as the pictures continually returned to my mind). 

Stay tuned…more China coming up soon! I may even sneak in a few posts about Minnesota!

Adventure Travel China

The curse of the Asian Toilet

If you have ever traveled anywhere in Asia then you have certainly experienced the “curse of the Asian Toilet” before.  Otherwise known as the squat toilet, it can be a brutal and stinky affair, especially for women who do not have the biological convenience that men do (yes, God must truly be a man!).

I, myself, am well past any issues with the squat toilet.  After traveling for three weeks in Nepal (in which over half of it was in remote villages in the Himalayas) I got broken in rather quickly to the “do’s” and “don’ts” of squat toilet etiquette.  For example, Do carry toilet paper.  Do always have hand sanitizer available (since there is seldom anywhere to wash hands let alone find running water).  Do carry a flashlight.  And most important: Do cover your noise (don’t you dare breathe in through your nose!  Mouth breathing only) and Do, and I mean Do, try your best to not look down or spill.  This is tricky for a female who isn’t equip like a male.  But it is a reality that we must face especially when using a squat toilet!  You definitely don’t want any accidents when you are traveling all day long wearing the same pair of pants!

For me, going to China and dealing with the lack of the “western toilet” (as my beloved Nepali guide called it) was going to be nothing after three weeks of roughing it in Nepal. I’d seen plenty of bad, cold, smelly toilets.  After awhile it was determined that sometimes mother nature was best.

So, I thought amused that it was no big deal dealing with the Asian toilet situation during my travels.  I’d done it, I’d mastered it and best of all, the hotel would most likely have a western toilet (unlike in Nepal where I went three weeks without one).

What I found so incredibly fascinating in China was the controversy regarding the Asian toilet (especially before Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008), the resulting growth of the public toilets (over 5,333 were added to prepare for the Olympics), the new rating star-standards of toilets, and last but not least, the hilarious commentary I saw about the wonder of the porcelain gods.  I couldn’t get enough of toilets during my trip!

Per an article I read on hilariously titled, “Beijing’s toilet horrors flushed away“, here is an account of the improvements Beijing has made recently to the toilet situation in the city:

Strolling along Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue in May, Kevin Born was drawn to an ancient Chinese-style building with delicate wooden carvings and wash paintings — only to find it was a public toilet.

Inside, he found a granite floor, remote-sensor flushing, automatic hand drier and piped music. He found it difficult to believe that only three years ago when he first came to China, answering nature’s call was an experience not for the faint-hearted.

“You had to take a deep breath and dash into the toilet. You held your breath and your head high, and never looked down. Then you’d dash out quickly for another gasp of fresh air. All within 30 seconds,” recalls Kevin, 30, an engineer from Germany.

The city launched a three-year campaign — with a 400-million-yuan (57 million U.S. dollars) investment — to modernize its public toilets in 2005 as part of its effort to prepare for the 2008 Olympic Games.

With 1,000 new public toilets being built and renovated each year, the fetid back-street privies are being replaced with clean, well-maintained flush toilets.

Now, Beijing is flushed with pride that all the 5,333 public toilets, boasting standardized white male and female figure signs, are available within a five-minute walk of any downtown location.  In addition, there will be 700 toilets in Olympic venues by the time the Beijing Games start and an additional 800 nearby.

Now it is time for a few of my best toilet shots (no worries….they are all flushed) as well as another interesting article I found regarding the history of toilets in China (including the introduction of the star rating system) and the push of the Chinese Government to vamp up the number of public toilets in preparation for the Olympics.  Happy reading!  (And please….don’t read this post on the toilet!).

Worth a read:  “Beijing Toilets Go Upscale”

Inside our hotel lobby, we had nice clean western toilets.  Yet I could not stop laughing over this “lost in translation”!

One of thousands of new, convenient public toilets made available throughout Beijing in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.  It was fabulous having so many public toilets available!  Most were all the traditional squat toilet, however, they were clean, not sticky and readily available everywhere.  It made a day of sightseeing or an evening of drinking beer easy.  (Don’t you hate it when you are traveling and desperately need to use the bathroom but can’t find one anywhere?!  Not possible in Beijing, thanks to the thousands of newly minted public toilets).

More public toilets located in the famous Hutongs.  They even had sinks with working running water!  Some had toilet paper too….bonus!

See, they are now nice and clean!  Not the old nasty ones that left people ready to pass out.  Locals and tourists alike embraced the availability and cleanliness of the new toilets. 

Different styles of public toilets that were “stand-alones” and much nicer than our “Port-a-Pottys” back at home. 

I could not resist grabbing my camera and taking this picture of the sign in the bathroom at one of the restaurants we ate at in Beijing.  Too funny!

It was not posted once but twice!  Guess they meant business!

In Shanghai, I nearly fell off my (toilet) seat when I realized that (a) it was heated! (b) it had a “rear cleansing” option and (c) it had a dryer!  Now that is a little disturbing, isn’t it.  (No, I did not try any of these services). 

The toilet was constantly heated to a warm 90 degrees F.  Guess they want you to stay seated for a while and enjoy!  Ha!

Stay tuned…enough silly business.  I’m starting to remind myself of my kids and their non-stop adoration of “potty talk”!   Next post will be on Beijing’s fabulous Hutongs!  Thanks for reading!

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION

Chinese Street Food 101: How to eat like a Chinese without being grossed out

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”  – James Michener

A sign posted on the outside window of a Chinese restaurant near our hotel in Beijing.

One of the best things about traveling the world is experiencing the world through your stomach.  Taste, of course, is one of the five senses and you cannot possibly leave home without it.

Food is an integral part of every country and culture around the world whether it be for mere subsistence, pleasure or some of both.  It is often said that one of the best things about traveling can be trying and eating all the different kinds of cuisine a new place has to offer.  However, that said, one of the worst things about traveling can also be the food.  It is all a matter of how you interpret things and of course how adventurous or non-adventurous you are.

Let’s take me as an example.  I am a relatively adventurous eater who loves to eat ethnic food.  My favorite cuisines are Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern and recently Ethiopian.  However, I do not eat red meat (sorry folks, I had to drawn the line twenty years ago when my grandfather fed me a hamburger that was stone cold frozen down the middle I haven’t had the desire to eat red meat since then).  I also am weary of any other types of odd meats (donkey, venison, dog to name a few) and “meat parts” such as organs (eye balls, hearts, livers, etc).

I can’t stomach strange kinds of uncooked fish such as fish eggs or scary looking raw creatures (I lost 10 pounds when I traveled to Japan as a teenager).  Yet, When in Rome I try my best to try the local cuisine, especially if it is vegetarian, cooked fish or poultry.  Therefore, I’m not a meat an’ potatoes kind of gal but I do steer clear of McDonald’s and opt for Pad Thai.

Before my big trip to China, I was extremely anxious about the food.  I had tried the Americanized version of Chinese in the States (and even went to have Dim Sum in Chinatown) but I’ve always left the restaurant feeling sick.  It was too greasy, too fried, too MSG’ed and too much.   I had high hopes that perhaps I’d enjoy the food in China much more than the terrible Chinese American food I’ve tried here.  Unfortunately, I proved my fears correct:  I hated the food.  (Note:  I am certain there is some Chinese food that I would have enjoyed if I had more time in China.  Each province has their own unique kind of cuisine.  As a tourist who couldn’t read any Chinese, I was at a severe disadvantage thus I am perhaps being a little unfair in my judgments).

My first lunch in China proved to be edible.  I had cashew chicken with no rice (never figured out where the rice was!).  It was gooey, relatively bland and so-so.  It left me feeling incomplete and unsatisfied but at least I kept it down.  That evening, I tried Sichuan pork at another Chinese restaurant and my mouth was on fire.  The fire raged all throughout my sleepless, first jet-lagged night and I woke up at 4 am with a burning stomach-ache.  From that point on, I simply threw in the towel and gave up.  I know, lame lame lame!  But given my past history with parasites and other unmentionable stomach ailments, I didn’t want to risk it for bad food.  So for the rest of the trip, instead of eating Chinese food I found myself taking picture after picture of the various types of Chinese cuisine I saw along the street.

Never before had I ever seen such a wide variety of street food in my life!  You could find anything you wanted, any time of day and the price was right.  It was beyond cheap.  So cheap that most Chinese prefer to eat both breakfast and lunch out everyday on the street!

So, without further delay here is thirdeyemom’s Chinese Street Food 101:  How to eat like a Chinese and not get grossed out.  Time to get out your chopsticks and dig in!  Hope you’re hungry!

Scenes from the street:  Every evening this enormous line of street food vendors would set up shop on Donghuamen Daije (a busy thoroughfare in the heart of Beijing) and sell plates and sticks of food to hungry passerby. 

Raw meat was selected and cooked up on the spot.

As well as other types of raw foods (fish, pig’s feet, beef).

Candied calabash and other delights were for sale on a stick for a quick and easy dessert.  These were extremely popular and I frequently saw locals slurping them down.

Stir fry and noodles were made to order (obviously this Chinese vendor thought I was interested!).  All the ingredients are fresh yet the pots, pans and plates are not very clean or hygienic.

You could also find fish fry around town.  You would simply pick your fish, then they would kill it for you and cook it right before your eyes all in a matter of minutes. 

Smelly green sea cucumbers are also cut up fresh and served in a plastic container to go. Mmmmmm.

And one last time (I promise, I just can’t get enough of this picture) you can buy live scorpions, beetles and seahorses (supposedly have a medicinal quality per a fellow reader of my blog) to be cooked up live on the spot and eaten.  I did not see any tourists eating this stuff as it was strictly in a Chinese side street.  Thus I cannot confirm who does eat the live scorpions on a stick and why! 

Outside of town, you could find peasants selling their excess produce.  I still have yet to determine what these are (a fruit? a vegetable?) but I saw them growing in the trees en route to the Great Wall (thus they must be a fruit!).

Fresh nuts, figs, dates and other dried fruits were for sale as a tasty snack which even picky me enjoyed (they made a great treat for our  2.5 hour hike up to the Great Wall!).

Being measured are the mixed goodies I purchased.  They were delightful!

I had been warned not to be alarmed if I ordered Chicken Soup in China.  Apparently the Chicken’s foot is often sticking out of the soup!  Needless to say, I did not order Chicken Soup.

Shanghai eats:  Shanghai had much better food in my opinion which was a thankful relief.  It is an extremely cosmopolitan, modern city and is the complete opposite from traditional, historic Beijing.  Yet I did still find plenty of interesting street food!

Here are some of my favorites:

Dried fish parts, raw fish pieces and other yummy, smelly things.

Up close and personal.

Ahh….I found my Moroccan dried fruit cart, in the midst of central Shanghai! 

Ok….these steamed buns MUST be good because every time we walked by, the line was a mile long. 

 Freshly grilled Peking duck, head included.

A local specialty from Shanghai’s water village community, Zho Zang:  Bean sauce pork. 

Toes and feet included!   (Had to take it sideways to get up close and personal).

There are rows and rows of this bean-based pork delight. Seems like it would be a messy kind of food to eat while walking but many do.

Zho Zang is also known for its seafood, notably fresh crayfish as seen above.

Here are fresh oysters which are caught in one of the many fresh water lakes outside the water village.

Here is the traditional, local Hairy Crab, fished right outside of the water village.  The crabs are still chirping as you pass by. 

 The dumpling queue….must be good!

Street food and eating in action.

 Cookin’ it up.

All this talk about food is making me hungry!  But I’m glad I’m back and eating what I’m used to.  It is all a matter of our tastes and what we are accustomed to.  There is no right or wrong with cuisine.  I just wish I could have liked the Chinese food better!  Thank god for western hotel food!  (I am so embarrassed to admit!).


Stay tuned….next post details my exciting “climb” up and hike on the Great Wall of China.  Needless to say, it was a great adventure!

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION


I landed in China after a thirteen hour non-stop flight from Chicago feeling elated, excited, tired and uncertain about what to expect.  I had been to Asia before with a visit last year to India and Nepal and trip to Japan years ago.  I’ve found these countries fascinating yet for some reason I was unsure what my expectations would be of China.  I had heard a lot about it.  Both good and bad.  It was time for me to judge for myself.

Of course I knew there would be tons of amazing history and culture to see.  Not many other places in the world can boast about having a 5,000 year-old civilization.  Yet I also knew it would be crowded, polluted, controlled, different, and perhaps confusing giving the huge paradox between the old and the new.

As I got off the plane and entered Beijing’s new Terminal 3, one of the largest terminals in the world that was completed just before the 2008 Olympics, my eyes widened.  It was so huge, so modern, and so clean.  This couldn’t be China, could it?

Photo taken just past midnight at Beijing International Airport’s Terminal 3. 

We retrieved our luggage, and wearily followed the clearly marked signs in English pointing to the taxi line.  Then, all hell broke loose.  As we stood there, waiting patiently in line, there was a mad dash of black-haired Chinese pushing past us and jumping into cabs haphazardly.  It was organized chaos.  It was so uncivilized.  It was China.

We arrived at our hotel well past one am, in a trance-like mood after so much travel.  I hardly noticed the row after row of street food canteens lining the brightly light streets.  Instead, what I noticed was the Soviet-looking appearance of our Trip Advisor rated hotel.  The outside was just plain old ugly.  Yet the inside was surprisingly nice.

We checked in to silence.  No one was around except a few late night stragglers coming back drunk, commenting on how wonderful the Beijing nightlife was.  The room was more than adequate (much nicer than the outside of the building) and since we were going on a twelve-hour time difference there was no way I could fall asleep.  It was 1 am yet my body was telling me it was noon.

My plan of attacking jet leg was to have a few glasses of wine, stay up for a while and then try to sleep four to five hours if possible.  It has worked before so I was hoping it would work this time.

I went down to the lobby to check my emails and enter my first blog post when I had my first real dose of serious culture shock.  I entered and nothing happened.  Hmmm.  I was tired but I couldn’t quite understand why on earth it wasn’t working.  I next went to my email and tried reading some of my fellow blog posts.  I could read the emailed short version but then when I clicked on the link to read more, it went blank.  Frustrated, I decided to try going on my Facebook page to send out a message to my friends that I had arrived and was here.  No dice.  It went blank.

It took me a day until it finally hit me that these sites as well as other social networking and media sites are blocked in China.  I couldn’t believe it.  I guess when I look back, it all makes sense to me and I should have known that this would be the case.  I know that China’s government censors all its media including the internet.  Yet for some reason I was completely taken aback.

I’ve heard stories off CNN being cut off right in the middle of a program.  Words being mysteriously erased from Obama’s speeches.  I’ve heard about the jailed and imprisoned writers, journalists and human rights activists who tried to speak their mind.  Yet I was absolutely stunned by the level of censorship on the big wide web.  How in the heck do they do it?

A timely November 7, 2011 article in the Financial Times claimed that:

“The heads of China’s leading information technology companies have pledged to censor internet content more strictly as the Communist party tries to tame the country’s boisterous online media”.

“While the Communist party regards the internet as making a positive contribution to economic development, it runs a vast censorship machine to ensure that online information does not challenge its grip of power”.

For a country that is advancing at lightning speed, with its 1.3 billion people wanting more and more a piece of the economic pie, I find this situation to be completely mind-boggling.   As an American, I’m used to being able to say or do what I want.  I had never realized how much I’d taken this liberty for granted until I was in a place where freedom of speech was gone.

Another big surprise was how incredibly slow the internet is in China.  Whenever you do a search, the internet runs at a snail’s speed to find or not find the answer.  I could just picture the giant censorship apparatus at work.  How do do it?

With anything illegal, of course there are ways around it.  Censorship can become uncensored.  You can use a proxy service to sneak into blogging sites or Facebook, if you like.  Likewise, many times things written in English from foreign sources are not censored (yet the Chinese versions are).  An American businessman I met traveling in China told me he could access Facebook only on his Blackberry.  And China does have their own Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter-like tools which are in demand and growing.  Yet it leads me to wonder how long this can really go on.  The estimated 500 million internet users in China only continue to grow, as does the breadth of the wild wild web.

Will censorship be possible forever?

Stay tuned…next will be Day 1 Culture Shock galore!