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First impressions

Fast catamarans transport Chinese tourists from the cities of Ningbo and Shanghai to the holiday island of Putuoshan in the East China Sea. All of Putuoshan is a national park. Upon arrival at the ferry port, visitors purchase an official admission ticket to the island and a mandatory booking ticket for one of the numerous hotels. Without both in your possession, you won’t make it out of the ferry port.

The beaches of both Putuoshan and the nearby, quieter island of Zhujia are not freely accessible either. At the entrance of the beaches you pay about three or four euros per person for an entrance ticket. Simply walking on the beach immediately is not possible. On Zhujia, the beach is more expensive because it is decorated with sand sculptures. On Putuoshan, half of the beach is cordoned off as a cross-country area for motorised beach buggies.

On both Putuoshan and Zhujia, drift lines in the sea indicate what the permitted swimming area is. Only between these lines you are allowed to enter the seawater; outside the drift lines, a few snarling watercraft roar past.

At Zhujia I order a beer on the terrace of a beach tent. As soon as I empty my glass, the waitress tells me to get up. The house rule is that I have to count down an amount for the chair if I’m left with an empty glass.

There are continuous announcements on the speakers that stand on the beaches of Putuoshan and Zhujia. Although I can’t decipher Chinese, I’m starting to fear that it’s saying  “Can the gentleman in the yellow bathing suit stay within the lines!” I get the stuffy feeling of being in a Teletubbies paradise, where everything is arranged and delineated.


What fascinates the holidaymaker is not so much the cultural aspects of modern China, but the sights and monuments of a bygone era: the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army in Xian. These attractions are in fact no longer part of modern Chinese society. For both the foreign tourist and the domestic Chinese holidaymaker, these are curiosities from a fabulous and romanticised past.

Most foreign tourists are therefore often not looking for an introduction to contemporary Chinese culture, but looking for the last memories of an idealized, disappeared China. These relics from history have usually been transformed in China into tourist attractions that evoke a strong association with the Open Air Museum in Arnhem, the primeval dutch life in Volendam or the mills of Kinderdijk.

These entertainment centres are targeted by both domestic and foreign tourists. In China, the Dutch holidaymaker is experiencing a phenomenon that is rare in other Asian, African or South American destinations: foreign tourism is totally overshadowed by the domestic holiday industry. In a Tanzanian wildlife park you will find mainly rich white supremacists from Western countries. 

Domestic tourism has been taken care of to perfection. At the foot of the holy temple mount Emeishan (Sichuan), for example, a highly efficient bus station has been built where one tour group after another leaves or arrives all day. Entrance cards have barcodes or magnetic strips. Passport photos are taken on the spot and printed on the ticket by computer. Chinese tourists visit the sights in the company of about twenty people accompanied by a guide with 

If ‘sustainable tourism’ were to be developed in China, efforts should focus on domestic tourism. Inbound, foreign tourism, despite annual growth, is only a marginal player in the Chinese leisure market.

On the other hand, Chinese are also very interested in the world outside China. Who doesn’t know them? The hordes of Chinese who, like their predecessors, the Japanese, visit the cheese market and children’s dike with busloads full of Amsterdam, Volendam, and have their camera ready as soon as they get off the bus. That’s how they visit Europe in 10 days. But they don’t have to anymore, because they’re just bringing Europe and the rest of the world to China! On the outskirts of Beijing, for example, there is a tourist theme park where replicas of famous buildings from 14 countries have been assembled, such as the Eiffel Tower and the White House. 

There is also a true dutch village of 220 hectares near Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province and 600 kilometres north-east of Beijing, where you really feel like you are in the Netherlands in the middle of amsterdam central station (in full size!), the canal houses, mills, the corn bridges of Leiden and much more. It is reminiscent of the famous Holland village in the Japanese city of Nagasaki, where famous Dutch buildings such as Paleis Huis ten Bosch have also been recreated. That park has more success: the Chinese Holland village has never been phased out, due to lack of money, fraud and scams, and is now abandoned. You can read more about the Dutch village in China by clicking on this article:

Man and nature

The willingness of Chinese to build cable cars over majestic glaciers and provide sacred mountains with concrete staircases and marked hiking trails has to do with the other vision that Chinese have on the relationship between man and nature. Shanghai Pudong Airport was already surrounded by artificial parks and gardens at the opening. Chinese highways are lined by flower beds. Gardens in China have artificial, geometric shapes: flower beds in the form of bells, birds or other symbols. Almost every Chinese family has an aquarium in house or another cage with a pet. 

In the eyes of the Dutch, the struggle between man and nature is a question of either one or the other. Either you use nature in the service of man, or you let nature be nature. Chinese people hold a different, more harmonious view of this. People and nature can be partners in a joint venture. For what’s supposed to be. The interplay of man and nature is a matter of give and take. The construction of a new airport requires that you offer the flowers and plants around it a new, well-maintained, planned environment.

Dealing with animals 

On the way through China, the tourist encounters animals trapped in conditions that may be unacceptable to normal standards. Restaurants have bins of breath-hungry fish or desperately floundering turtles, ready to be picked as culinary delicacies. It is striking that – for a country with so many inhabitants and such an extensive food culture – you hardly see any farmland with free-flowing pigs, cows or sheep. Most animals in China spend their lives in dark, sealed sheds. Within the Chinese context, all this is part of the give-and-take system – on an equal basis – between man and nature. 

Disappearance of the Hutongs

Beijing has gained momentum in terms of economic growth and modern transformation. All this is mainly due to the Olympic Games that were held in Beijing in 2008. The city needed to be newer, more modern, everyone needed to get involved. The Chinese had to unlearn their bad habits, such as spitting on the street: they can now even get a ticket for it. Everything to make a good impression during the world famous Olympic Games in 2008. The old cityscape was also undergoing a metamorphosis. The centuries-old hutongs, the old streets with houses and shops used to be the hallmark of Beijing. Because the city suffers from a chronic lack of space, these special old streets and houses had to give way to high-rise buildings and modern wide streets. The land is so expensive in Beijing, everything is now going up. Many hutongs have already been killed, the inhabitants still live in the same place, but now 20 high. Despite having better electricity and plumbing facilities (own toilet and shower), they feel they have gone backwards. Their lives no longer take place on the street, but in a flat of 4 by 4 meters. They are forced into individualism, there are no relationships anymore with their neighbors and other residents. They’re really living on their own now. You can imagine that this is a whole transition, a forced adjustment to the rapid modernization of China.

Not only the locals of the hutongs are not happy with their changed living environment, also the tourists rather see the hutongs preserved. The hutongs are cultural heritage of ancient Beijing. In the past, before the invasion of modern high-rise buildings, the whole city consisted of hutongs. Now there is only a fraction of that left. On the old houses that still stand, mainly north of the forbidden city around Lake Hou Hai, there is often the character Chai written, which means ‘demolition’. Without tourism, there would now be no hutongs at all. One Hutong district is preserved, because it is a tourist attraction, where tourists are driven by local pedicabs. Tourism can therefore also play a very positive role in the preservation of cultural heritage: because tourists want to see how it used to be, a number of hutongs are preserved for future generations. If you’re in Beijing, take a walking or cycling tour through the preserved hutongs. The local pedicabs are very touristy.

China as a destination

The big obstacle of a holiday in China is the language. In state-of-the-art cities such as Shanghai or Chengdu, street names and bus stops can be displayed in both Chinese and English. However, it remains the case that – unless you are exclusively in academic circuits – you meet a Chinese person who speaks English so well that you can have a conversation on average once a week. None of this has anything to do with education or development. For a conversation, however, the routine simply is missing. As a result, a conversation in China is almost impossible. But with some hands and feet of work you can still “understand” each other a bit.

In addition, you can only make the most of today’s China if you also have the desire or willingness to be interested in the stormy development that the country is going through. Shanghai’s public library – with a perfect internet bar – is a palace of unparalleled modernity, leaving every Dutch library behind. Given that many tourists are most interested in the romantic China of temples and pagodas, they are eagerly anticipated. In the Chinese tourist city number one, Hangzhou, the behaviour of the last Buddhist monks is followed via a video circuit. Not to lose that old culture.

In essence, there are three ways to visit China: through an organized tour, through the guidelines and limitations of travel guides like Lonely Planet, or independently on your own.

If you catch the organized tour, you’ll be in the pleasant company of group mates with whom you can at least converse, and follow a trip along China’s designated, nostalgic highlights. You will not get acquainted with today’s China but will be guided around the well-known attractions that give you an impression of China’s rich history – but hardly modern developments. There are also dream trips that take you to, for example, the nomadic life around Hohhot in the province of Inner Mongolia. All very nice, but fairly far removed from the reality of everyday life.

Travel guides like Lonely Planet offer you an option that includes hopping from one hangout for backpackers to another. The descriptions are focused on those few idyllic free havens for backpackers that China is rich in. The recommended hotels are gathering points of English-speaking travelers around well-known sights – where you can meet other tourists with the same travel guide – lying among accommodations used by the remaining bevy of Chinese domestic tourists. Perhaps more than in many other far-flung countries, the travel guides offer you a ‘trail’ of safe and inexpensive refuges, where you can exchange experiences with fellow travellers.

Independently, travelling on your own is no easy task. Chinese authoritarianism still makes certain hotels refuse you due to the lack of permission to admit foreigners. On those days you will have to be willing to pay prices of up to fifty euros for hotels that are allowed to. However, you are welcome in more hotels than the travel guides would have you believe. The rules for foreign hotel guests seem to vary from city to city. Sometimes you can stay overnight in a dormitory with three or four beds for five to ten euros. Or for the same price in a raunchy loft of two by two with one bed and one lamp.

The first introduction to a Chinese metropolis – as soon as you get off the train – is usually overwhelming. The sight of yet another city of millions evokes a sense of impotence. At each train station, however, saleswomen walk around with city maps. Wait a minute for someone to come to you. The floor plans almost always show bus lines, often hotels. Overviews – in Chinese – of the departing trains are also sold around the station.

However, travelling individually, alone or in pairs, certainly means that your communication options are very limited and you will need to be able to entertain yourself most of the time. In the long run, this will be the crucial sticking point when staying in China. Make sure you have a map of the country or city with place names in both Chinese and English. Although speaking the Chinese language seems impossible, interpreting simple Chinese characters is best to do. Each Chinese character contains a key to both the meaning and the pronunciation. A handy language guide, a correct map, one you will be able to explain some of your wishes reasonably. Just go after your gut for what you seem handy. The Chinese term for an internet café is “yang bar” (yang bàh) – easy to know.

Travelling by train

The train is the means of transport in China. If you’re on a tour of China, take the train instead of a domestic flight. Trains run speeds of up to 160 kilometres per hour. Day trains have a chic first class and comfortable second class. If your budget allows, always ask for the most expensive class. The Dutch Railways can make a big point of the impeccable service of the Chinese state-owned company. People drive on time. Delays – even on long distances – are very exceptional.

It is advised to buy your train ticket at least a day in advance. The sooner the better. However, there is never cause for despair. Check the train stations first if there is a separate ticket office for foreigners. (In the Shanghai station building, for example.) The employee there will usually understand perfect English there.

In the big cities, the Chinese-language reservation counters are usually located in a separate building, usually about slanted in front of the station building. It is always useful to know the number of the train of your preference. You’ll find out by quietly studying the departure schedules (for sale around stations, sometimes also in hotels) and deciphering the Chinese characters. At large stations, ticket offices are set up by train number: ask in advance where the ticket office for train K282 (or any other number) is located. Bring pen and paper. The reservation offices are open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. But around meal times the ticket offices are always closed for an hour. It is particularly around these closing times that the long queues build up that put many off. However, come at a convenient time, and you’re sometimes amazingly quick.

The Chinese long distance trains (night trains) have three classes: soft sleeper, hard sleeper and hard seat. Avoid hard seats. Soft sleeper is more luxurious and cleaner than what we are used to in Europe. Hard sleeper has narrow beds with no locked coupes – but once you’ve installed yourself and calmly immerses yourself in every sense is reasonably comfortable. Soft sleeper roughly equates to fifty euros per thousand kilometres; hard sleeper costs about twenty-five euros per thousand kilometers. A hard seat costs approximately ten to fifteen euros per thousand kilometres.

Every long-distance train has the same structure. Right in the middle is the dining car. On one side of this first some soft sleeper cars, then a long zipper hard sleeper wagons. On the other side of the restoration are all hard seat cars. If you can no longer get a soft or hard sleeper ticket, buy a hard seat ticket for the time being. As soon as the train leaves, go to the ticket office on the train; that counter is always in the first hard seat car right next to the dining car. Wave banknotes, especially when it’s busy, as a sign that you can pay quickly. Usually you can exchange the hard seat certificate on site for a fee for the hard sleepers or even the soft sleepers that are still free. I’ve always succeeded; of course, the more difficult to exchange as your tour group consists of more people.

Once you’ve got a place to sleep, train travel in China is a breath of fresh air. Many times a day a waiter comes along with drinks and meals. In a soft sleeper quadruple compartment it can be extremely quiet and quiet; hard sleepers are a bit more lively. The dining car is only open to the public around the normal meal times for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Just like much simpler restaurants by the way. If you are not great at speaking/reading Chinese, choose a restaurant where you can designate the dishes, not a restaurant with a written menu.)

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