China is almost as big as Europe, and definitely feels immense. I know I certainly felt overwhelmed a few times. But these books helped me understand China a bit more. I hope! I mean to say that after a monarchy, the Kuomintang, Japanese occupation, and the Cultural Revolution, China has seen a lot. The world I saw, especially as a tourist, was probably miles away from how it had been only a decade or two before.
So the following are some books I read as prep. Others I was recommended include Red Star Over China, Out of Mao’s Shadow, The Penguin History of China, and anything by Peter Hessler.
I’ve also been slogging through Mao: the Untold Story. It’s, erm, been slow going.
Wild Swans: this 1991 book has been hugely successful, with good reason. It’s a memoir of three women of China: grandmother, concubine to a powerful warlord; mother, a communist officer; and daughter Jung Chang, the author of this book and an emigre to Britain. Beautifully told and really engrossing, it’s actually still censored in China.
Midnight in Peking: In 1937, just as the Japanese were to invade Peking, 19-year-old Pamela Werner, daughter of a former British consul, ended up brutally murdered. This fascinating, horrific case was never formally solved, but Paul French tries to piece together the puzzle.
Empire of the Sun: Set around the same time as Midnight in Peking, Empire of the Sun tells the story of young Jim, eleven years old and separated from his parents in Shanghai. Sent to various work camps by the invading Japanese, he befriends some very strange characters, and becomes an independent young chap. This is a very sweet, sometimes tear-inducing story that comes from author J.G. Ballard’s own memories. Also turned into a Spielberg film with young Christian Bale!
I’ve heard that Paul Theroux (the writer) likes to read something totally different from his surroundings. Think: Madame Bovary in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle. Still others read only books set in the places they’re traveling. How do you do your travel reading?
In short, China was fantastic. I’d never thought too hard about going there, but now I’m so glad I went. It’s so modern and dynamic, and also amazingly weird. Hence, this list.
Before this two-week trip the only part of China I’d been to was Hong Kong, which is a different breed altogether. So let me preface this by saying that these are my first impressions. Experiences may differ…
•The ‘Shanghai Bikini’: is when men, especially the 40+ set, roll their shirts up and display their round bellies, keeping themselves cool.
•Spitting: is loud and incredibly obvious. Done by men and women.
•Pastel-coloured clothes: are a big thing in fashion magazines, along with little-girl dresses. On the street, to be fair, things are a lit more relaxed.
•Birkenstocks: are in.
•Ears: i.e. clip on rabbit/cat ears for grown women, were very popular in Beijing.
•Hair Pastels: like, drawing pencils, are sold as hair-colouring chalk.
•Whitening: for your face, duh, is very popular. I’ve tried to avoid face creams that contain hydrogen peroxide, thank you.
•Wifi: is in every cafe, every airport, lots of malls and many public squares.
•Paul frank: is still a thing.
•Trains: are, thank God, all air-conditioned. Also, I paid 50 dollars for a 16-hour train ride. And the Z-train from Chengdu to Shanghai was quite nice; the waiting area wasn’t crowded, the bedding was plush, there were outlets in every compartment and each little bunk had its own tv.
•English: is actually pretty widely spoken, especially compared to Russia. And people are sweet and nervous about their English. Bless.
•Being a foreigner: is very comfortable. Unlike, erm, Uzbekistan, you won’t get anything lecherous. Rickshaw drivers will just yell ‘hello’. Hello to you, friend!
•Beer: is incredibly weak. A regular Tsingtao contains less alcohol than a Bud light. That photo above? I think we (a group of six, mind) were on bottle 43.
•Bargaining: again, those beers? Listed as 25 each, one of our party bargained them down to 7.
•Advertising: is bizarre. I saw giant ads for kiwis (below), and something called ‘hypnotise’.
•Train food: for the Russians would include boiled eggs, bread rolls, tomatoes. In China it’s boxed noodles and weird, Ovaltine-esque beverages.
•Talking: never stops. See: the three people I shared a train cabin with for twenty hours.
•Men: fortunately/unfortunately are never going to give their seat up for you on the subway. One time this 20-year-old girl did, though.
•Bikes: come at you from all directions. There is no logic.
•Children: seem to have a lot of tantrums. I saw at least half a dozen children screaming on the street.
•English names: are nuts. Of the six teenage girls I met, there was a ‘Bilbo’, ‘Frankenstein’ and a ‘Potato’. Alrightey!
Never have I seen so many people eating as in Beijing, at all times of day. I love it! In Moscow, for instance, you just don’t see people walking and snacking, unless they’re brandishing a Starbucks cup.
Street eating makes a lot of sense; why wait ages to get the waiter’s attention when you could have your food in one minute flat, and eat as you shop? Plus, while Beijing’s prices seem to be increasing rapidly, these street eats are still very cheap. We’re talking between 0.50c and $1 for a good-sized snack.
The best places for street eating include Ghost Street (Gui Jie), Wangfujing night market (and the smaller day market), and the hutong (the many, many alleyways around scattered throughout Beijing). I was staying right by Nanluoguxiang hutong, which is just paradise for eating. Wudaoying is also cool, though quieter, and indeed a little more cafe-based. But in general, don’t worry if you forget your provisions while out sightseeing; street food of some sort can be found at all the main sites, including the most rugged parts of the Great Wall.
And on the street you’ll find some of the weirdest, most delicious foods. If, like me, you don’t read Mandarin, you might not even know quite what you’re ordering. That, of course, is part of the fun.
In my opinion, with no real order, is the most awesome of street food. Unsurprisingly, I’ve eaten almost all of this stuff so far. But I welcome more suggestions! What else should I eat while in China?:
•Triangular red bean cakes with cream
•Fresh lemonade sold in litre containers
•Bubble tea (with the giant tapioca pearls) and milk
•Milk tea, hot or iced (in general, though, do be careful of ice, as it’s sometimes made from tap water)
•Warm custard tarts (if you’ve had the Portuguese version, you’d find these very similar)
•Potted yoghurt in reusable jars (just look for the empty jars, as you see above, to find someone who sells these)
•Meat on sticks–pork, chicken, scorpions, you name it.
•Golden bread. (I’d liken this to a big loaf of amazing brioche. The one below I got at the Forbidden city, of all places.)
•Churros. The trendy food of the moment, I guess? Why not!
•Fried tofu with spicy sauce and cilantro. Make sure to include some of the stinky tofu, too!
Get eating, and I’ll see you in Xi’an!