I’ve had a fortnight to mentally and physically uncoil out of China, and yet I’m still undecided about how to call the 28 day whirlwind of delights and near-death experiences. I always thought that it would be the nemesis of our trip; expensive, difficult and exhausting. But, for better or worse, it’s been the place that’s ‘affected’ me the most on the trip so far – the best of times and the rest 

There were just three things that had the potential to ruin it for me; and for my own closure I’m going to talk about them in scathing detail here;

The Filth; I’m not having a ‘western’ dig at the design flaws of the squat toilet, but the Chinese literally need to get their shit together. The toilets are a mess. Fair enough, have squats if you think they’re a good idea, better for your colon, more hygienic than sitting on a seat, whatever, but have a bit of self respect and clean them once every century at least. For an ancient race of people who build amazing mega-structures I was astounded that they hadn’t bothered to invent a nice place to do the things that everyone has to do every day. I lost my guts on a number of occasions just walking in to those hell holes.

On the subject of filth is the cacophony of sound I can only describe as the ‘cough, hack, spit‘ combo which can be heard anywhere, even from the direction of a little old lady, and most gruesomely is often the first sound you hear penetrating the thin walls of budget hotels first thing in the morning. It’s the kind of gross that makes you shudder.

The driving; If you are ever thinking of driving in China, don’t. See my earlier blogs on the subject of driving. It’s nothing less than suicidal. Chinese drivers have no skills, no fear and no regard for human life. I can only imagine that you have to fail an IQ test, become a registered deadly weapon and be atleast blind, deaf and dumb to qualify for a drivers licence. The only warning signs you see on expressways are for drunk driving and falling asleep at the wheel, which are the least of China’s driving problems.

The rules; Officially, we weren’t ‘allowed’ to bring our car in or drive it ourselves in China, like we were in other countries, but we exploited a loophole by paying a tour company $6k for a 28 day ‘tour’. The ‘tour’ boiled down to them organising all permits and licencing for the car (everything except our tourist visas) a specific day by day itinerary and having a guide in our car for 28 days. We then had to cover all meals and accommodation for her, as well as our own, fuel, tolls, sightseeing, tip etc as additional costs. So basically, we paid $6k before we even stepped foot into China.

I’m not griping about the tour company, I think they did it all quite smoothly; we got on really well with our guide, and it was a godsend having a translator. I just can’t believe that the only way to get through the door is to pay just an exorbitant fee, and that once you’ve paid the fee – you become virtually invisible - the company are responsible for you. The strangest thing was that our guide didn’t even have a drivers licence of her own, and the way the car is setup for this trip, the only spare seat is right at the back, making conversation a nightmare – so we pretty much just drove around China for 28 days with her sat like a hostage in the back. When we ran into trouble, she’d leap out the back door like a little genie and try and solve it. It was kind of funny on the longer drives to look back and see her completely k’o-ed from boredom; at times I felt bad that we weren’t doing more to ‘entertain’ her. But then I remembered she was getting an all expenses paid holiday for 4 wks and I didn’t feel so bad.

To be fair, she did an amazing job showing us the sights, finding us the best value accommodation and places to eat and putting up with the camping. I can’t help but wonder whether we would’ve coped if we’d been on our own. It is a hard country for independent travel, and the luxury of having someone to answer all your questions from ‘left or right here?’ to ‘can you book us a room at a hostel?’ and the more common ‘where can we find some dumplings’ was great, and in the end, we made a great new friend, even if we did completely exploit her translation and admin skills (to the point of slavery.)

The last spanner that disagreed with us was the ‘no foreigners’ rule at hotels. Chinese hotels need a licence from the police to host ‘aliens’ and once you get away from the truly touristy package deal areas, not many hotels have this licence, and those that do are usually the top joints in town. Maybe I should’ve expected it, but the nature of our trip meant that at times, much of our itinerary was off the tourist trail – we ended up in many towns who’d never seen a blondie, let alone two in an orange truck with the steering wheel on the wrong side.

Although Yingshu did a fantastic job at trying to find us accommodation within our budget, I was annoyed that the tour company hadn’t researched more. It was so carefully dictated on our itinerary which towns we should stay in each night, and yet, they hadn’t considered that we might need to spend up to 90  driving around trying to find a hotel that would have us – a bit more effort spent by them researching at least one or two places that could host us aliens would’ve saved us time and energy schlepping around at the end of a long day driving when all we wanted to do was a relax.

I’m ashamed to have written so much about the things that annoyed me, because we really did have an awesome time in China – the food alone is reason enough to go back. I’m tempted to say that having a guide (especially a really fun one as we did) made it worthwhile. She led us to places, people and encounters that we would never have had on our own. She did her best to personalise the itinerary to our needs, but she also persuaded us to consider the things that weren’t even on our radar.

Accepting the fact that China can be difficult at times, it had some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen; snowcapped mountains, pristine lakes, bamboo forests, ancient walled cities, sand dune deserts and everything in between. And if it weren’t for the other drivers, some of the roads themselves were remarkable – with their ridiculously long tunnels carved into mountains and super mega bridges that seem to pass over entire towns. The scale of infrastructure in that place is phenomenal and for every ‘b’ grade national road that we whinged about, next to it a new superhighway was already under construction, in fact, half the places we visited seemed to be under construction – it really is an amazing scale of civilisation to witness.

Now the bland soviet stodge of Kazakhstan is disinteresting me to a point of starvation, helping me waste my Chinese belly away, I can say this without sounding like an absolute piglet; the food in China was AMAZING. I completely overate at any opportunity. I relished in being able to slurp down a massive bowl of spicy hand pulled beef noodles at 8am, and still having room for a little pork and chive dumpling bun. I loved stopping over at a roadside husband and wife café halfway through the day, perusing their glass refridgerator, selecting three varieties of vegetables, tofu and meat and waiting to see what manner of amazing delight they’d whipped together whilst we sat drinking tea. How can there be so many good cooks in China? Best of all, I loved the nights where we’d go in search of whatever the local specialty dish was and discover a new height of lipsmacking goodness. Food is a well celebrated art form here, and people are good at making it and enjoying it. I’m salivating at the thought of one more Chengdu Hotpot, one more dumpling soup shrowded in coriander and shallots, deep fried tofu with chilli, melty chunks of spicy fried eggplant, salty marinated cucumber, pork with loads of ginger and mushrooms, bbq’d mutton sticks…not a scrap of sweet and sour pork amongst them.

I think what most blew me away about China was how we were received by its people. Granted we were gawked at like aliens most of the time, and taken photos of like zoo animals for another large chunk of time– but there was too, a genuine interest in trying to talk to us (although the language barrier made it difficult) and once there was some semblance of understanding, there was fascination of the car, the trip, our hair, and a genuine desire to be as hospitable as possible – we were frequently given thumbs up from other cars, shown directions to the best restaurant or being invited to someone’s house for something-a-rather, and everytime we questioned whether the same thing would happen on our own home soil.