Oh China, how you’ve changed! Part 2

This is part two of a three part series exploring the tremendous changes that have occurred in China since the author last visited as a tourist in 1995. To start reading from the beginning, click here.

China was, and still remains, the most challenging country I have ever traveled. Of course, when I say this, I mean the China I wrestled with in 1995. At the time, it was a given rule that a person must set aside at least one day for logistics for every two days of travel. Nothing was easy. Simply buying a train ticket in the “Foreigners Only” line, for example, was an all day affair in which the salesperson might refuse to sell you a ticket to Chengdu but have no problems selling one to the person immediately behind you.

In addition, simple international forms of communication were never understood. Pointing at your wrist would never get the time out of someone. Pointing at a train and asking “Beijing?” would never reveal if that was indeed the train to Beijing. And, ordering chicken from your Chinese phrase book meant getting a cooked chicken complete with head, beak and claws, but without any seasoning or sauce whatsoever. Frankly, I was surprised it was even cooked.

With such little exposure to the outside world, the cultural differences made for some very trying times while traveling in the 1990s.Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit since then. Keep in mind, however, that my observations are a little skewed since both cities I visited will be hosting Olympic events in 2008 and are therefore scrambling frantically to become more tourist friendly.

As a result, I found Beijing and Shenyang pleasantly amicable. Compared to 15 years ago, there were far more signs in English, it was much easier to communicate simple meal needs, and sales staff were astronomically more helpful. Many even spoke English.

The government is trying hard to ensure that visitors during the Olympics have an enjoyable experience. This naturally involves massive training programs for anyone who will come in contact with foreigners as well as new laws prohibiting spitting, slurping soup, and other activities that visitors might find offensive. And so, I had a nice chuckle at the Beijing airport when I ran across the device in the above photograph (sorry for the blurry shot, but it was in the airport and photography wasn’t allowed). It was attached to the front of a counter where a woman was checking my ticket and passport. This is great! Just the slightest bit of attitude and I could reach out with my finger and ding her! If they had this device 12 years ago, the bad button would have broken the first day from overuse.

The Economy

Back in 1995, Beijing was practically rural in its mentality and feel. Today, however, a burgeoning economy has produced a rash of products and a billion plus consumers to swoop them up. Luxury items and international brands are now available in the countless shops which have blossomed in this supposedly “communist” environment. As a result, consumerism is on the rise as products that were impossible to buy 12 years ago are now fashionable must-haves whose attributes are increasingly touted by a rapidly growing amount of advertising which also didn’t exist in the 1990s. Billboards and neon, while not dominating the cityscape, have certainly changed its face.

And then, of course, there is the most ubiquitous symbol of an emerging market: the cell phone. I didn’t see as many people chatting away in public as I would have expected, but the Chinese cell phone market is indeed taking off.

And so, my journey through modern day China was a voyage through a nascent economy which is visibly rising to its feet and, according to some experts, may one day dominate the world market. It’s a strange disconnect from what I witnessed 12 years ago and no matter how much I was prepared for the new China, the sight of an Audi driving, Gucci-clad, Chinese princess gabbing away on her cell phone was an image I would have never thought possible back in 1995.

Traffic and Pollution

Twelve years ago pedestrians stood the chance of getting run over by a bicycle if they weren’t careful crossing the road in China. Today, they stand the chance of getting run over by a car.

The above photo is from 1995 when bikes ruled the road and cars were rare and usually government owned. Bicycles were king in China and the roads literally overflowed with them–some nine million in Beijing alone.

Today, the roads are crammed with private automobiles instead, thanks to China’s expanding economy. Bicycles have become a second-class form of transport and in some places are actually banned from the same roadways they used to rule.

This has transformed cities like Beijing into just another auto-choked Asian capital where traffic jams and honking horns have sadly replaced the more tranquil, iconic bicycle.

As if this isn’t bad enough, the increase in pollution since 1995 was noticeable before I even landed at the airport. Descending from the sunny, clear skies of 30,000 feet into Beijing airspace, my plane passed through a thick, murky inversion layer of toxic pollutants that nearly obscured the sun for the remainder of my stay in the capital, as well as further north in Shenyang. Sure, the region has always received a fair amount of dust storms from the Gobi desert and air pollution from nearby factories, but the addition of 1,000 new cars hitting the streets every day in Beijing has made the air quality far worse.

The thought of an Olympic athlete performing in this pollutant cocktail is simply unfathomable. The city is aware of this problem, however, and has already launched a couple of exploratory “car free” days where private cars were banned from the streets in hopes to clean up the air.

Personally, I don’t think it’s going to work. The air is foul and will only get worse as cars continue to replace bikes.

Yesterday: Oh China, how you’ve changed! Part 1
Tomorrow: Oh China, how you’ve changed! Part 3